CLOSE
IStock (Blank Book, Background) // Amazon (Book)
IStock (Blank Book, Background) // Amazon (Book)

14 Larger-Than-Life Facts About 'James and the Giant Peach'

IStock (Blank Book, Background) // Amazon (Book)
IStock (Blank Book, Background) // Amazon (Book)

Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach has all the hallmarks of a classic children’s fantasy: a young boy embarking on a great adventure, overcoming evil forces, and enlisting the help of talking creatures. But the beloved novel also breaks from tradition in others ways, from its wild plot turns to its sometimes-violent imagery (R.I.P., Aunts Sponge and Spiker). All of those factors come together in a tale that Dahl struggled to get both written and published, as he overcame his own doubts and stuffy British publishers, among other obstacles. Here are a few other things you might not know about James and the Giant Peach.

1. DAHL’S OWN ORCHARD INSPIRED HIM.

Dahl’s house in the English countryside had an apple orchard, where he would often go for strolls. One day, he wondered what it was that made apples grow only so big. “What would happen if it didn’t stop growing?" the author said in a 1988 interview. "Why should it stop growing at a certain size?” Writing about a giant apple didn’t seem quite right, and neither did a giant cherry or a giant pear. Eventually, Dahl settled on a giant peach. “He thought its flesh and flavors were more exciting and more sensual,” Donald Sturrock wrote in Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl.

2. HE REALLY WANTED TO WRITE ABOUT INSECTS.

After deciding to write a children’s novel, Dahl pondered the sorts of creatures that should live in his story. His children loved animals, but he felt Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, and so many others had already covered all the interesting non-human characters. So he set his sights on insects. “There seemed to be jolly little that had not been written about, except maybe little things like earthworms and centipedes and spiders,” Dahl reportedly told his daughter Ophelia. It was those very creatures he would incorporate into James and the Giant Peach, in the forms of Earthworm, Centipede, and Miss Spider.

3. HE STOPPED WRITING AFTER A FIGHT WITH HIS PUBLISHER.

While writing the book, Dahl learned that his American publisher, Alfred Knopf, had quietly axed publication of his earlier collection of stories, Kiss Kiss. So he stopped working on James and the Giant Peach, which Knopf had expressed enthusiasm for. Instead, he turned his attention to a screenwriting project. “As far as getting a children’s book out of me now, he can stuff that one up his arse,” the often contentious Dahl wrote in a letter to his New York agent, Sheila St. Lawrence.

4. THE CATHOLIC CHURCH PLAYED AN UNEXPECTED ROLE IN ONE OF HIS OTHER WORKS—AND HELPED HIM FOCUS ON THE NOVEL.

That screenwriting project involved adapting two dozen classic horror tales, selected by him, for television. The author wrote the screenplay for the first selection, a story called “The Hanging of Arthur Wadham.” It was shot and edited, and seemed on its way to a full release. But then, according to Sturrock, the studio suddenly grew nervous. One of the script's key plot points involved a priest deliberating over whether or not to reveal something said during confessional, and break his sacred vows. Fearing they might offend the Catholic Church and religious viewers, the studio nixed the episode and eventually canceled the series. Frustrated, Dahl returned to writing James and the Giant Peach.

5. WHILE CRAFTING THE STORY, DAHL ALIENATED HIS TRUSTED AGENT AND FRIEND.

For more than a decade, Dahl relied on the support and guidance of New York-based agent Sheila St. Lawrence. She encouraged him to write James and The Giant Peach and even contributed ideas that made it into the book, like the scene where cloud men pelt the flying peach with hailstones. After Dahl signed a new agent to represent him in England, Laurence Pollinger, things turned sour with St. Lawrence.

Pollinger convinced Dahl to let him handle the translation rights for Kiss Kiss (which Penguin had agreed to publish) and James and the Giant Peach, a job St. Lawrence had overseen up to that point. Dahl broke the news to St. Lawrence, who fired back that he should stay out of it and let her hash out the matter with Pollinger. After arguing with Dahl and with Pollinger, St. Lawrence eventually gave up the fight. She and Dahl made up, but she was clearly wounded by what she saw as Dahl’s shifting allegiance. Less than a year later, she left her job and moved to Ireland.

6. HE WORKED THROUGH TRAGEDY.

On December 5, 1960, Dahl’s infant son, Theo, was badly injured after a New York taxi collided with his stroller. To control the buildup of fluid in Theo’s head, which took the brunt of the impact, doctors installed a shunt. The tube frequently became blocked, requiring one desperate visit to the emergency room after another for Dahl and his wife, the actress Patricia Neal. Rather than retiring in grief, Dahl became something of a medical expert and, with the help of doctors and a toymaker, developed an improved shunt called the Dahl-Wade-Till valve. The device went on to be installed in more than 3000 children—but Theo wasn't one of them. By that point, Dahl's son had recovered sufficiently. Dahl also found time to work on James, finishing the book in early 1961.

7. HE SELECTED AN UNKNOWN ARTIST TO ILLUSTRATE THE BOOK.

According to Sturrock, Dahl turned down several famous names, including the Danish painter Lars Bo, in favor of American Nancy Eckholm Burkert. It was her first book illustration job. And while her surreal yet wondrous pictures venerated Dahl’s choice, it appears he may have also selected her, in part, because she could be influenced. Dahl had a clear idea of how the illustrations should look, and often gave his unsolicited input. He demanded, for instance, that James look like Christopher Robin from Ernest Howard Shepherd’s illustrations in Winnie the Pooh. “A face with character is not so important as a face with charm,” he wrote to his editor at Knopf. “One must fall in love with him.”

8. U.S. SALES FOR JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH WERE REALLY SLOW AT FIRST.

Despite glowing reviews in The New York Times and other publications, James and the Giant Peach only sold 2600 copies in the U.S. in its first year. Dahl’s editor at Knopf assured the author that this was often how sales trended for little-known authors, and that the book would eventually pick up steam. One thing that probably worked against Dahl was a negative review in the highly influential Library Journal, in which writer Ethel Heins, despite noting “original elements,” rejected the book’s violent elements and characterization of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. Her verdict: “Not Recommended.”

9. IT TOOK SEVEN YEARS TO FIND A BRITISH PUBLISHER.

Hard to believe now, but Dahl had a very difficult time finding a publisher for James and the Giant Peach in his native United Kingdom. Longstanding houses sniffed at what they saw as a weird, grotesque fantasy, and some would even claim they took pride in rejecting it. It took a stroke of good fortune for a deal to finally be made. Dahl’s daughter Tessa gave the book to her friend Camilla Unwin, daughter of UK publisher Rayner Unwin (Tolkien fans might recognize the name: It was Rayner who, decades earlier, had recommended publication of The Hobbit to his father, the publisher Sir Stanley Unwin).

Unwin saw how absorbed his daughter was with Dahl’s book and looked into its publication status. Despite being mainly a textbook publisher, Unwin decided to snap up James and the Giant Peach as well as Dahl’s latest at the time, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

10. DAHL TOOK A BIG GAMBLE ON THE PUBLISHING DEAL.

Dahl was so eager to be published and taken seriously in England that he signed a risky deal that would pay him 50 percent of sales receipts—but only after Unwin had recouped production costs. Both books needed to be hits for him to see a payday—and they were. The first printing run completely sold out, and so did the next one, and the one after that. By the early ‘70s, Roald Dahl was a household name in England, and rich to boot.

11. HE DIDN’T WANT IT MADE INTO A MOVIE.

During his lifetime, Dahl turned down numerous movie offers for James and the Giant Peach, reasoning that the story was too difficult to translate to the screen. After his death in 1990, his second wife Felicity (or Liccy as he called her) decided to put the film on market, with the express hope that Henry Selick would take charge. (Selick had directed The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Dahl’s daughter Lucy was impressed by his visual style.) She agreed to Selick’s stop-motion treatment, and the resulting 1996 film got mostly positive reviews.

12. THE BOOK GETS CHALLENGED A LOT. . .

Dahl’s story doesn’t shy away from mature themes like death and child abuse, making it a target for book banners across the country. According to the American Library Association, it was #50 on the list of “Most Challenged Books 1990-1999.” People have also taken offense to the book’s surreal elements and supposed sexual suggestiveness. In 1986, a Wisconsin town banned the book over a scene in which Mrs. Spider licked her lips.

13 . . . BUT DAHL DIDN’T THINK MUCH OF CRITICS.

Dahl’s biographers paint him as a man obsessed with his image as a literary heavyweight, but contemptuous of critics. Adults, he believed, were poor judges of the quality and appeal of children’s books. As Dahl wrote in response to a letter from a young fan of James and the Giant Peach: “Up to now, a whole lot of grown-ups have written reviews, but none of them have really known what they were talking about because a grown-up talking about a children’s book is like a man talking about a woman’s hat.”

14. THERE’S A MUSICAL BASED ON THE BOOK.

Songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul developed a stage adaptation of Dahl’s book, which debuted in 2010 and had extended runs in Seattle and Atlanta. It’s been licensed for school and community productions, meaning you can currently only see it at a nearby high school or local playhouse. You’ll probably get more enjoyment out of the 20-track studio album, which features 2012 film Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Astin, and Broadway stars Brian d’Arcy James and Megan Hilty.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulu
arrow
entertainment
10 Things We Know About The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2
Hulu
Hulu

Though Hulu has been producing original content for more than five years now, 2017 turned out to be a banner year for the streaming network with the debut of The Handmaid’s Tale on April 26, 2017. The dystopian drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book, imagines a future in which a theocratic regime known as Gilead has taken over the United States and enslaved fertile women so that the group’s most powerful couples can procreate.

If it all sounds rather bleak, that’s because it is—but it’s also one of the most impressive new series to arrive in years (as evidenced by the slew of awards it has won, including eight Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards). Fortunately, fans left wanting more don’t have that much longer to wait, as season two will premiere on Hulu in April. In the meantime, here’s everything we know about The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season.

1. IT WILL PREMIERE WITH TWO EPISODES.

When The Handmaid’s Tale returns on April 25, 2018, Hulu will release the first two of its 13 new episodes on premiere night, then drop another new episode every Wednesday.

2. MARGARET ATWOOD WILL CONTINUE TO HELP SHAPE THE NARRATIVE.

Fans of Atwood’s novel who didn’t like that season one went beyond the original source material are in for some more disappointment in season two, as the narrative will again go beyond the scope of what Atwood covered. But creator/showrunner Bruce Miller doesn’t necessarily agree with the criticism they received in season one.

“People talk about how we're beyond the book, but we're not really," Miller told Newsweek. "The book starts, then jumps 200 years with an academic discussion at the end of it, about what's happened in those intervening 200 years. We're not going beyond the novel. We're just covering territory [Atwood] covered quickly, a bit more slowly.”

Even more importantly, Miller's got Atwood on his side. The author serves as a consulting producer on the show, and the title isn’t an honorary one. For Miller, Atwood’s input is essential to shaping the show, particularly as it veers off into new territories. And they were already thinking about season two while shooting season one. “Margaret and I had started to talk about the shape of season two halfway through the first [season],” he told Entertainment Weekly.

In fact, Miller said that when he first began working on the show, he sketched out a full 10 seasons worth of storylines. “That’s what you have to do when you’re taking on a project like this,” he said.

3. MOTHERHOOD WILL BE A CENTRAL THEME.

As with season one, motherhood is a key theme in the series. And June/Offred’s pregnancy will be one of the main plotlines. “So much of [Season 2] is about motherhood,” Elisabeth Moss said during the Television Critics Association press tour. “Bruce and I always talked about the impending birth of this child that’s growing inside her as a bit of a ticking time bomb, and the complications of that are really wonderful to explore. It’s a wonderful thing to have a baby, but she’s having it potentially in this world that she may not want to bring it into. And then, you know, if she does have the baby, the baby gets taken away from her and she can’t be its mother. So, obviously, it’s very complicated and makes for good drama. But, it’s a very big part of this season, and it gets bigger and bigger as the show goes on.”

4. THE RESISTANCE IS COMING.

Just because June is pregnant, don’t expect her to sit on the sidelines as the resistance to Gilead continues. “There is more than one way to resist," Moss said. “There is resistance within [June], and that is a big part of this season.”

5. WE’LL GET TO SEE THE COLONIES.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

Miller, understandably, isn’t eager to share too many details about the new season. “I’m not being cagey!” he swore to Entertainment Weekly. “I just want the viewers to experience it for themselves!” What he did confirm is that the new season will bring us to the colonies—reportedly in episode two—and show what life is like for those who have been sent there.

It will also delve further into what life is like for the refugees who managed to escape Gilead, like Luke and Moira.

6. MARISA TOMEI WILL APPEAR IN AN EPISODE.

Though she won’t be a regular cast member, Miller recently announced that Oscar winner Marisa Tomei will make a guest appearance in the new season’s second episode. Yes, the one that will show us the Colonies. In fact, that’s where we’ll meet her; Tomei is playing the wife of a Commander.

7. WE’LL LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF GILEAD.

As a group shrouded in secrecy, we still don’t know much about how and where Gilead began. That will change a bit in season two. When discussing some of the questions viewers will have answered, executive producer Warren Littlefield promised that, "How did Gilead come about? How did this happen?” would be two of them. “We get to follow the historical creation of this world,” he said.

8. THERE WILL BE AT LEAST ONE HANDMAID FUNERAL.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

While Miller wouldn’t talk about who the handmaids are mourning in a teaser shot from season two that shows a handmaid’s funeral, he was excited to talk about creating the look for the scene. “Everything from the design of their costumes to the way they look is so chilling,” Miller told Entertainment Weekly. “These scenes that are so beautiful, while set in such a terrible place, provide the kind of contrast that makes me happy.”

9. ELISABETH MOSS SAYS THE TONE WILL BE DARKER.

Like season one, Miller says that The Handmaid’s Tale's second season will again balance its darker, dystopian themes with glimpses of hopefulness. “I think the first season had very difficult things, and very hopeful things, and I think this season is exactly the same way,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “There come some surprising moments of real hope and victory, and strength, that come from surprising places.”

Moss, however, has a different opinion. “It's a dark season,” she told reporters at TCA. “I would say arguably it's darker than Season 1—if that's possible.”

10. IT WILL ALSO BE BLOODIER.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

When pressed about how the teaser images for the new season seemed to feature a lot of blood, Miller conceded: “Oh gosh, yeah. There may be a little more blood this season.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
The Ohio State University Archives
arrow
Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios