Choosing the five best Roald Dahl books is a daunting task at best and perhaps an impossible one. He wrote 21 books for children along with even more screenplays, autobiographies, and short story collections for adults. Talk about prolific! I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe Roald Dahl is one of the best children’s authors of all time. Even more importantly, as a teacher I’m hard-pressed to think of a student who hasn’t fallen in love with at least one of his stories. And anecdotally, he’s the most popular among the young reluctant readers I meet. His stories are delightfully funny, a little rude at times, full of puns and portmanteaus, and never shy away from darkness and danger. His talent for inventing language to enthrall children’s mind is unparalleled. Because who can help being delighted by words like gobblefunk, scrumdiddlyumptious, blabbersnitch, and snozzberry?
Here is a highly unscientific list of the best Roald Dahl books and an idea of where to start if you are a new reader to his book.
Where to Start With the Best Roald Dahl Books: The Classics
Matilda is one of the most beloved Roald Dahl books for a reason. It celebrates a love of books that so many readers identify with. Although it contains a delightful revenge fantasy that can be very cathartic for readers of all ages. At five and a half, Matilda’s read all the books from the grownup section in the library and does high level math (we’re talking double digit multiplication!). Her sweet teacher Miss Honey and classmates know she’s special. But her self-absorbed parents don’t appreciate her genius. And the scary school principal, the villainous Miss Trunchbull, wants to put Matilda in her place. Armed with her intelligence, a special power, and a talent for vengeance, Matilda begins a series of pranks against these evil adults to get revenge and protect the people she loves.
This classic Roald Dahl story, made even more famous by the film adaptations, engages in fantasy in a totally different way. First off, it’s an archetypal rags to riches story. And secondly, CANDY!!! Charlie Bucket is poor. And not like cute storybook poor. He’s father was laid off, there’s nothing to eat, sleeping on the floor with no heat poor. But the polite, kind boy’s fortunes turn around when he finds a golden ticket that means a chance to inherit the local candy factory. With four spoiled children, Charlie and his Grandpa Joe tour the fantastical factory filled with confectionary fantasies like chocolate rivers, fizzy lemonade swimming pools, lickable wallpaper, invisible chocolate bars, swudge (grass made of mint flavored fudge), and so much more. As the four other children give in to their gluttony and break the rules, Charlie emerges as the hero and is invited to bring his family to live with Willy Wonka. The sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator gets even more bonkers and is filled with whimsically delightful capers.
Next, Read One of Roald Dahl’s Darker Stories
3. The Witches
Roald Dahl’s books never shy away from the darker elements of life. I think that’s one of the main reasons kids like them so much—they don’t sugarcoat anything (insert Willy Wonka joke here). But The Witches takes this to the next level. An orphaned boy moves in with his grandmother, a former witch-hunter, who teaches him how to spot a witch. They look like regular women, but they hide their claws with elegant gloves, hide their baldness with itchy wigs, and hide their square, toeless feet with pointy shoes. When they go on vacation, the boy and his grandmother find themselves in the middle of a witches convention. The Grand High Witch has a plan to rid the world of children once and for all by turning them into mice so their parents and teachers will unknowingly kill them. The boy devises a plan to stop their plan, but his heroic journey is not without sacrifice. Spooky!
4. The Twits
The Twits is perhaps the most hilarious of Roald Dahl’s books, but it is also Dark with a capital D. Mr. and Mrs. Twit’s hatred for each other plays out in a series of nasty pranks. They have a family of monkeys as pets, called the Muggle-Wumps, who they force to stand on their heads to train for an upside-down circus the Twits want to start. And Mr. Twit puts sticky glue on the trees to catch birds for Mrs. Twit to bake into a pie. So basically it’s a book about a loveless marriage and animal abuse. Hilarious, right? Just wait. The humor really amps up when the monkeys and birds team up to get their revenge. This is a less often read Roald Dahl book, but I think in terms of balancing darkness with comedy it’s up there with his better known stories. It also might be one of my favorites from childhood, which is perhaps something I should talk to my therapist about…
Finally, Return to Something Friendly and Fantastical
5. The BFG
When Sophie (another orphan!) spots a giant carrying an oddly shaped trumpet, he kidnaps her from the orphanage and brings her back to his cave. She is sure he is going to eat her. But this isn’t the Bloodbottler or the Bonecruncher or any of the other giants she’s heard stories about before. This is the BFG—Big Friendly Giant—who eats the vegetable snozzcumbers instead of vulnerable children. He travels through town catching dreams in his trumpet, sharing the good ones and destroying the nightmares. The BFG says Sophie must stay in the cave because the neighboring giants might eat her. But soon when a nightmare gets loose, Sophie and the BFG must work together to end the tyranny of the other bloodthirsty giants. While there are some scary elements in the story, the silly details transform it into a joyful romp of a read.
And If You Want Even More of the Best Roald Dahl Books (Because Frankly “Best” is a Highly Subjective Term…)
Honorable mentions go to: