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

The Observer - - News -

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.

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