Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach was first published in 1961. As in many of his books, this story contains characters who, because of their dominant position, are able to subjugate or ill-treat the child. Such a trend in Roald Dahl’s plots is not surprising if one gets to know of the author’s own unhappy experience with British schooling.

This particular story is about how a miserable little boy gains peace and freedom with the help some unusual friends and a peach.

James loses his parents when he is four years old and since then, has to live with two very mean aunts.
When he is seven, a mysterious old man appears in the garden and promises James that he could get rid of his misery forever. He produces a paper bag full of “crocodile tongues”, gives James instructions on what to do with them and then disappearing just as mysteriously. In his haste to rush back into the house, James trips and falls down. The contents of the paper bag spill out, sink into the soil and completely disappear. In the next instance, James and his aunts are filled with amazement when they notice that their once barren peach tree has suddenly borne a fruit. The fruit swells up until it is “almost as big as a house”. James aunts decide to make a profitable venture out of the peach tree by allowing the public into the garden to view the giant fruit.

The next night James is sent out to clean up the garden after all the visitors have left. He discovers a hole in the peach, big enough to climb through, which he does. Thus starts his adventure. He finds the most unlikely of friends there, insects as big as himself. With them, James gets to experience two things which he never did in the three years with his aunts – laughter and the ocean. The giant peach takes them on a voyage from one country to another, first by land, then by sea and finally through the air. James adventure brings out in him strengths that was never apparent before – intelligence and courage.

This book is listed in the American Library Association’s “The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books” and it has been criticised for reasons such as crude expression (the use of the word “ass”), being too scary (James’ oppressive life and the way his aunts died) and containing a racist remark (“I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican”). Also, some of the poetry that the Centipede composes may seem crass. But to me, these are issues that parents can discuss with the children and set right what is acceptable and what’s not. Such gliches aside, the book is just great fun, made even more so by the creative twist given to the characters of the insects.

The book was made into a film in 1996 and won Best Animated Feature Film at the French Annecy International Animated Film Festival. The film was also nominated for the Academy Awards.