Matilda’s new adventures at 30: an astrophysicist, explorer and bookworm
To mark three decades since Roald Dahl’s heroine first graced the page, her illustrator, Quentin Blake, has imagined her life now, writes Donna Ferguson
She was the quintessential young rebel who broke all the rules about how good little girls should be portrayed in children’s literature by standing up to bullies in the name of justice – and having a laugh at the same time.
Now, Roald Dahl’s Matilda – the most powerful female genius ever to be underestimated by a hammer-throwing headmistress – has been portrayed for the first time as a 30-year-old woman in a series of eight sketches by Dahl’s long-time illustrator and friend Quentin Blake.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the first publication of the book, three of these sketches will appear next month on the covers of special collectors’ editions, showing Matilda variously as an astrophysicist, a world traveller and as chief executive of the British Library. “Oh good,” Dr Matilda Wormwood is pictured thinking as a male library assistant brings her a huge pile of books: “Here’s one I haven’t read.”
In his foreword to the new editions, Blake, 85, reveals he enjoyed imagining what Matilda might be doing now she has grown up. “Since, as a small child, Matilda was gifted in several ways, it wasn’t very difficult. I imagined that for each version of our grown-up Matilda one of her extraordinary talents and achievements would have come to the fore and shown her a role in life,” he writes.
“I am sure that someone who had read so many books when she was small could easily have become chief executive of the British Library, or someone exceptionally gifted at mental arithmetic would be perfectly at home in astrophysics. And if you have been to so many countries in books, what could be more natural than to go and see them yourself?”
Blake describes illustrating Matilda as a wonderful experience. “It has been very special to revisit her all these years later and marvel at the woman she would have become.”
Matilda has been one of Dahl’s bestselling books since it was published in 1988, with 17 million copies sold worldwide, but sales have particularly spiked in the past two years and it is now outselling all of Dahl’s other titles.
Carmen McCullough, Roald Dahl editor at Matilda’s publisher, Puffin, believes this reflects a wider trend in children’s fiction: “We’ve seen a real movement towards more feminist publishing recently. Parents are more keen than ever to present aspirational female characters to their young children – boys and girls – and that is what’s helping Matilda stand out, because she’s a wonderful example. She has such belief in herself and is every bit as relevant and inspirational to children and adults today as she was 30 years ago.”
Children’s laureate Lauren Child agrees part of Matilda’s enduring universal appeal is that Dahl chose to write about a spirited little girl. “Like Jo in Little Women and Pippi Longstocking, Matilda is an incredibly modern character. You can relate to her. She’s not a sap, she’s not a goody two-shoes, she doesn’t take everything sitting down, she fights back. She’s for justice.”
Children’s fiction continues to be dominated by male characters because publishers wrongly think boys don’t like to read books about heroines, she says – and this continues to make Matilda appear fresh and relevant. “We are surprised by Matilda because there aren’t many modern female characters like her. We shouldn’t be, but we still are because times haven’t quite changed enough.”
The success of Matilda the Musical, which has been seen by 8 million people in 65 cities around the world, has helped to reignite interest in the story among adults.
The book’s publishers hope millennials who enjoyed reading Matilda as children will purchase (or be given) the 30th anniversary edition in order to read the story again as adults, choosing the cover which most suits their own view of what Matilda would be like at 30.
Child, the author and illustrator of the Charlie and Lola picture books, believes Matilda would have become an inventor. “I think she would be a very creative person at 30. The way she thinks is interesting. She thinks in a sideways way, a way that’s out of a box. She’s not confined. But the thing that you feel most about her is that she could be anything. I think that’s the message of the book: You can’t beat someone down if they’re interested in the world and they have a good heart.”
Mara Wilson as Matilda in the 1996 film, and Quentin Blake’s illustrations of how her life might be now.
The special 30th birthday edition of Matilda is designed to appeal to adult readers too.