[The Sarah Walsh illustrated edition comes out October 13, 2020.]
Matilda is a precocious child with parents who are negligent and verbally abusive. The story picks up shortly before Matilda is set to begin kindergarten, presumably so that we can learn that she is a preschool autodidact and that she has crappy parents. We also witness how she takes to “punishing” her parents whenever one or both of them behave in a particularly vile manner, using what might best be described as pranks. The empowerment of children, girls, and bookish people is the central theme of the book
Matilda begins school and is at once delighted to find a kind and caring teacher, Ms. Honey, and dismayed to find that the Principal, Mrs. Trunchbull, is a horrible woman. While Ms. Honey recognizes Matilda’s brilliance, she cannot get the girl advanced to a suitable grade because both Matilda’s parents and Trunchbull refuse to recognize the girl’s intellect. Dahl takes on both the cause of feminism and the plight of nerds. In the case of the former, we see how Matilda is disregarded by both her parents because she is a girl and they don’t see much value in her education and can’t fathom that she would be good at learning. While Matilda’s brother doesn’t exactly get top-notch parenting, at least some effort is made to advance his education. In the case of the latter, Dahl shows the derision for reading and studiousness that is all too common in society.
I won’t delve into the details of the balance of the story except to say that when Matilda discovers that Ms. Honey’s life is even more harrowing than her own, the young girl resolves to use her talents and capabilities to help improve Honey’s lot.
I read the version of the book, illustrated by Sarah Walsh, that is coming out in the autumn of 2020. Dahl’s story is the same, but the art is different. Having seen the Quentin Blake illustrated books, I’m aware of the difference between the two. However, as a non-artist, I don’t have much vocabulary to give a detailed description of said difference. I can say the Blake art is more reminiscent of old comic strips and the Walsh work was more cleanly drawn and “realistic,” while maintaining a general sense of whimsy and a bright color palette. I enjoyed the artwork, though I don’t claim a particular eye for such things.
I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. It’s written for children, but if you’ve gotten to adulthood without checking it out, it’s worth going back to read it. While the villainy maybe over-the-top for adult readers (i.e. there aren’t any nuanced characters,) the story has emotional resonance and is satisfyingly concluded. As to the question of the age of children it is good for, I don’t have much expertise in that either. However, as a litmus test, ask yourself if you think the kid can assimilate the image of Trunchbull swinging a girl by her ponytails – as in the hammer-throw – and tossing her over a fence.