Memphis Botanic Garden marks Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday
For author Roald Dahl, words were as elastic as the gum chewed by Violet Beauregarde in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
Dahl squashed and spliced and mixed and mashed so many words that he even created one — “gobblefunk” — to describe the practice itself.
“Swashboggling” (specia l). “Squishous” (easy to squish). “Flushbunking” (nonsensical). These are a few of the chewy linguistic confections devised by Dahl in such books for young readers as “James and the Giant Peach” (1961), “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (1970), “The BFG” (1982), “Matilda” (1988) and, of course, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (1964).
Another is “Wondercrump,” which more or less means “wonderful,” which makes it an appropriate adjective for “Wondercrump Weekend,” a worldwide celebration of Dahl’s 100th birthday that has found a Mid-south home at the Memphis Botanic Garden, 750 Cherry Road.
A “Storytelling” session with a Dahl book will be held Saturday, but the main event is the 6 to 9 p.m. Friday “Family Movie Night,” built around a screening of the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” directed by Mel Stuart (who also directed the 1973 Stax concert documentary, “Wattstax”).
The “Willy Wonka” screening has taken on special significance, due to the Aug. 29 death of Gene Wilder, 83, who played Wonka in the film.
Although the movie — with its bizarre characters, ironic candyrelated tragedies and orange-faced Oompa-loompas — was not a success during its original run, it has accrued a loyal cult following, and was remade in 2005 with Johnny Depp in the Wonka role.
The movie will be shown on a large inflatable screen on the Great Lawn of the botanic garden, according to Gina Harris, youth education director at the garden. To connect the movie and Dahl’s original book to the garden’s plantpromoting mission, she said, “candy stations” will be set up around the perimeter of the lawn, where docents dressed as fantastic Candyland-esque characters will pass out candy while explaining the botanic origins of popular sweets.
For example, one station will introduce visitors to Althaea officinalis, also known as the “mallow” plant, which produces a gluey mucilage that was the source for the sticky sweet treats that evolved into “marshmallows.”
Another station will focus on seaweed, in particular the seaweed known as Irish moss ( Chondrus crispus), which contains the substance used as gel in gummy bears.
Dahl, who died in 1990 at 74, was born 100 years ago this past Tuesday in Cardiff, Wales. “Wondercrump” celebrations in his honor began to be held about nine years ago, mostly in England, but have gone transatlantic, with events scheduled this year in such places as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Austin, in addition to Memphis.
Jocelyn Schmidt, vice president and associate publisher at New York-based Penguin Young Readers, which publishes Dahl’s work through its Puffin imprint, said in a phone interview that the books have become more popular than ever in recent years, thanks to the success of the Broadway version of “Matilda” and to such film adaptations as “James and the Giant Peach,” Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and Steven Spielberg’s “The B.F.G.”
The latter film was not a hit, but its box office failure did not hurt sales of the book, which soared due to the awareness created by the movie.
Schmidt said some 40 million copies of Dahl’s books are in print in the U.S., and close to 200 million copies have been sold worldwide. Puffin publishes 16 Dahl novels in paperback, and the company has reissued five works in hardcover, in new editions developed in conjunction with the family-controlled Roald Dahl estate. Why is Dahl still so popular? For one thing, Schmidt said, Dahl never “talks down” to readers, not even the 7-to-12-year-old “middle graders” who prove to be his most loyal readers once they learn about the books from parents, teachers or librarians.
“Roald Dahl’s books reflect the everyday injustices that kids see and experience,” Schmidt said. “Yet through invention and a little bit of mischief, the kids in the books win the day. They’re courageous, they’re inventive, and they’re the ones who are empowered.”
Incidentally, Schmidt shares a birthday with Dahl: She turned 45 on Tuesday.
“It was one of the first things I learned when I joined Penguin 6½ years ago,” she said, with a happy tone of voice that seemed to ask: What could be more wondercrump than that? 100th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl. FridaySaturday at the Memphis Botanic Garden, 750 Cherry Road. 6-9 p.m. Friday: Screening of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971), with Gene Wilder, plus prizes, bubblegum-blowing contest, “exploration stations” with the plants used in traditional candymaking, and more. Admission: $10, or $8 for garden members. 10 a.m.-noon Saturday: “Storytime” with Roald Dahl’s “George’s Marvelous Medicine.” Free with regular garden admission. 10 a.m.-noon Sept. 24: “Storytime” with Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Free with regular admission. Visit memphisbotanicgarden. com, or call 901-636-4131.
The late Gene Wilder and oodles of Oompa-loompas star in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” which screens Friday night at the Memphis Botanic Garden.