It was sometime during the Battle of Britain, when Hurricanes and Spitfires were up from dawn to dark and the noise of battle was heard all day in the sky; when the English countryside from Thanet to Severn was dotted with the wreckage of planes.
With Waterstones and Booktrust launching Maytilda this month to celebrate that splendiferous book turning 25 this year, I thought it was only fitting to start my reviews off with a recent, brand-new experience of the legend of Roald Dahl.
Having read Solo and Michael Rosen’s recent biography of Dahl, the title of The Gremlins kept coming back to me – Dahl’s first children’s book written during the Second World War for none other than Walt Disney. Known as the lost Walt Disney production, The Gremlins was never made into the film it was planned to be, a whimsical and promotional animation for the war. In the end it was scrapped by Disney but published as a book by Random House in 1943, with the author’s name credited as Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl.
Based on his experiences as a fighter pilot, the gremlins of the story are the little creatures that sabotaged aircrafts and caused malfunctions and crashes. The story isn’t what modern audiences would call a children’s book but the subject matter is typical of the time, in an era where Biggles sat on most boys bookshelves. As you can probably tell from the opening line the language is also quite dry and matter of fact but in contrast to this are the heavily-lined but recognisably Disney illustrations that bring the words to life.
I really wanted to use this book to show off, to claim that I had read a relatively unknown Dahl classic but if I’m honest, it doesn’t really come close to his later work. However, what is fascinating and beautiful about The Gremlins is you can see the development of Dahl’s dark humour and imagination straight away. For example the gremlins come in a variety of types, each ingeniously named – we have the widgets (baby gremlins), fifinellas* (females) and spandules (high-altitude gremlins).
*The design of fifinella was so popular that the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots adopted her as their mascot!
The history of this story and links with the film world is utterly fascinating and described in a charming foreword by Leonard Maltin, a film historian. Though it isn’t the lost masterpiece of Dahl that I so badly wanted, The Gremlins is well worth reading even if it’s just to see where he came from and how his style developed into what made Roald Dahl such an amazing children’s author.