Books that Built Us: ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - 8:25pm

The film adaptation of 'Matilda'

The film adaptation of 'Matilda' Buy this photo
TriStar Pictures

Having lived a life nothing like that of my parents, I remember my childhood in an absolute blur of unconventionality. My introduction to the world was their introduction to America, and I still can’t pin down exactly what contortions led to who I am today. This isn’t to say my life was strange; this was life in my Arab-American neighborhood. The thing is, when you start out in a city like mine, you never really leave it. You do what everyone else around you does because they’re how you understand a world crossed between two cultures.

I was considered “too American” by many people. I learned a lot on my own rather than through my parents. I might have spoken Arabic first, but I understood the world in English. It was the flashy cartoons on the screen that told me stories, the quirky bus songs that taught me how to sing. And by the time I could read, my world expanded beyond the construct of my city. I read everything within my grasp, from books and recipes to my mom’s citizenship test prep book. And while this afforded me a stable interest in learning and a love for school, it didn’t comfort the isolation I felt around others. I wore my curly hair “too wild,” didn’t say much and performed dismally in religious studies. I desperately hoped for a friend like the compassionate characters from my books, someone I could relate to. I wasn’t the person people around me expected out of me, and it wouldn’t make sense until years later when it didn’t matter anymore.

“Matilda” was one of the books I read at the time. You’ve probably read it. Probably watched it. Probably know the story regardless — Matilda the precocious little girl neglected by her parents. Feeling impossibly lonely, she takes to visiting the library and finding her company in book characters. Matilda isn’t your average six-year-old — she has read hundreds of books and computed large numbers in her head, a feat most adults don’t even reach. But that’s not what makes the story so profound or Matilda so brilliant. Despite her circumstances and pain, she finds her strength in the friends she makes at school, patience and telekinesis. Rather than abusing her powers, she uses them to teach her parents a lesson and protect her friends and teacher, Ms. Honey, from the deranged principal Ms. Trunchbull’s reign of terror.

Perhaps I’m a bit biased, given the dozen or so times I’ve read this novel. But I have yet to encounter a children’s book that pays respect to the minds of its readers the way “Matilda” does. Rather than regarding her unconventionality an obstacle, it honors Matilda’s trials and tribulations as a route to her strengths, a means to empathize with others and fight for justice despite her perceived inferiority as a child. Adults don’t always provide this wisdom to children.

Too often our children’s books cater to deceptive images of what a dynamic protagonist should look like­ — you can never be both victim and hero. Despite the incessant shifts, growths and spurts we face within those first 12-or-so years of life, we idealize an image of stagnancy and envision a past world of no responsibilities. Yet our childhoods are a lot darker than we remember them to be as we wrestle with confusion, pain and failure at every stage. A lot of this seeps into adulthood, morphs us, but is long forgotten once it assimilates into our current situation, leaving us incapable of understanding childhood unless it’s distinct from the present.

My childhood in no way parallels the unbridled abuse Matilda faces from her parents, but it was lonesome. At a point in my life where I feel comfortable with my interests, sexuality and background, I forget the steps it took me to overcome the distress I had towards my identity. I forget the people who helped me arrive where I am. I don’t think a single person is “self-made” and I remember this every time I reread “Matilda.” Matilda may appear to be an anomaly against her quintessential kindergarten classroom, but like any other child, her power flourishes under the watchful eye of an endearing adult. Ms. Honey’s capacity to empathize with Matilda and fight against the adults who undermine her is what teaches Matilda to do the same for others. I am thankful to have had teachers who inspired me, like Matilda, to find inner strength in the qualities I thought separated me from others.

My value and adoration for “Matilda” comes in its capacity to communicate the transient nature of life. It taught me the universality of loneliness and empathy, the capacity to lift and be lifted by others. Having had a fixed mindset that I would forever be in a state of “otherness,” this book correctly assured me that I would find my place.