"Hopeless." That was how Roald Dahl's longtime editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Stephen Roxburgh, described an early draft of the cantankerous author's last long chapter book for children. And, once Dahl, who was in poor health and his early 70s, was honest with himself, he, too, realized the novel was all wrong. He started it over again--the first time in his long and celebrated career he ever had to do so. However, the fact that Roxburgh was right did not stop Dahl from pulling the book and taking it to Penguin.
This month, the novel Dahl eventually published, about a 5-year-old genius with telekinetic powers who outsmarts her nincompoop parents and repugnant headmistress, celebrates its 25th anniversary. Matilda has undergone numerous cover revamps, spawned a 1996 movie, and inspired an acclaimed musical that makes its Broadway debut this month. Even in its final form, in which (unlike in Dahl's early draft) the heroine does not die after gambling on horses, the humor of Matilda has an edge to it. Matilda's neglectful parents don't want her; her headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is a bully; and until she forms a friendship with her teacher, Ms. Honey, she is very much by herself in the world--except for her books. The first time I read Matilda, I had a perm and huge pink glasses sliding down my nose. Since then, I have found Matilda Wormwood in Hermione Granger, Violet Baudelaire, and every other hero whose first impulse is to solve problems with the power of her brain.