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Emma Pearl (centre, age 6), her sister (right, age 3) and Roald Dahl at Pearl’s primary school book fair. (Photo: Supplied)
Emma Pearl (centre, age 6), her sister (right, age 3) and Roald Dahl at Pearl’s primary school book fair. (Photo: Supplied)

BooksOctober 16, 2023

My great uncle Roald Dahl

Emma Pearl (centre, age 6), her sister (right, age 3) and Roald Dahl at Pearl’s primary school book fair. (Photo: Supplied)
Emma Pearl (centre, age 6), her sister (right, age 3) and Roald Dahl at Pearl’s primary school book fair. (Photo: Supplied)

Roald Dahl dedicated The Twits to his great niece, Emma Pearl. Now an author herself, she reflects on the huge impact he had on her life and work.

Roald Dahl was my great uncle – my grandmother’s brother on my mother’s side – and also, by a bizarre twist of fate, one of my father’s oldest friends. They met while teenagers on a schoolboys’ “Exploring Society” expedition to Newfoundland in 1934 – a real-life Boys’ Own adventure. They remained firm friends throughout their lives but it wasn’t until nearly forty years later that my dad married Roald’s niece and the friendship was cemented by family ties. 

Roald was a kind of uncle-grandfather-mentor figure in my early life, a larger-than-life presence, playing a part in many of my pivotal childhood experiences. He was that kind of person – the hub around which many layers of family revolved. A focal point. A polestar. A force of nature.

My memories of him are many and varied. When I was five, Roald challenged me to swim a width of his swimming pool, which seemed an impossibly long distance for a little girl who was struggling with doggy paddle and nervous of the water. The reward, should I choose to accept the challenge, was the biggest box of chocolates ever. 

The lure of such a prize spurred me on, of course, as Roald knew it would. I practised and practised, a spark of inner determination was ignited in me. Eventually, after several weeks of “training”, I spluttered my way across the pool to claim my prize. It was the biggest box of chocolates that money could buy (in the corner shop on Great Missenden High Street), and certainly the biggest I had ever seen. 

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I suppose that was when I learnt that it’s worth putting in the hard work to overcome your fears and achieve a goal, no matter how impossible it seems when you start out. That achieving such a goal gives you an enormous boost of serotonin, self-confidence and pride. That dedication and commitment leads to results. That it’s all worth it in the end.

I was younger than Roald’s own children but older than his grandchildren, and so I happened to be a child during the years that Roald was writing most of his books for children. Lucky me! In many ways, I grew up not only with his books, like so many children around the world, but also with his body of work, growing older as the number of bestsellers emerging from that famous writing shed in his garden increased. I was always eager to read the next one, and beyond delighted to receive the pristine signed copy of the first edition hot off the press that Roald so kindly and solemnly gave us, a little ritual to mark the publication of each book. 

The most exciting one of all for me was The Twits. I was seven when this was published and – oh, how lucky I felt! – Roald dedicated it to me. My own name at the front of the book! “For Emma”. To be perfectly honest, I wondered what I could possibly have done to deserve this. It felt like such a special honour, and it still does. Even now I am rarely able to leave a bookshop without seeking out a copy and looking for my name in it. It still sends a tingle down my spine. At seven years old, it was unimaginably thrilling.

The Dahl children left to right: Asta, Else (Pearl’s grandmother), Alfhild and Roald. Pearl’s guess is that this was taken around 1924/25. (Photo: Supplied)

Roald always took an interest in my progress at school, even though he didn’t care much for school himself. He came to my primary school book fair to sign books and raise money for the school to start its own library. I think he judged a school writing competition at one point. When I was 10, he suggested I record an interview with him to share with my class. I recently rediscovered this recording, which is quite charming, complete with parents clinking tea cups and the dog barking in the background (you can listen to it on my website). I believe there might even be a tiny bit of me in Matilda – I was a pre-school bookworm (although not in Matilda’s league!) and one of my high school teachers bore an uncanny resemblance to Miss Trunchbull. Now, as a writer myself, I can totally believe that all conversations with young people provide material that may one day end up in stories.

I was 17 when Roald died, and that was my first experience of death, magnified several-fold because my own loss, although deep and somewhat terrifying, paled in comparison to that of his closest family members. My beloved grandmother had lost her brother, whom she adored. Roald’s children had lost their father, Liccy her husband. But it also felt as if the world had lost something precious too. How many more incredible stories might he have written if he’d lived longer? What other wonderful characters would have entered the collective consciousness of children across the globe?

There is no denying the scope and longevity of Roald’s influence on generations of individuals who have read and loved his stories throughout the decades. But he also had a profound influence on me personally, and he still appears regularly in my dreams with his wry chuckle, twinkling eyes, bad language and well-worn cardigans. 

Being related to one of the all-time greats of children’s literature was a blessing in so many ways. However, as a writer myself, it was not without its drawbacks. Did Roald instil in me a love of stories, a tendency to seek out the magic hidden in the ordinary, and an appreciation that hard work and perseverance leads to rewards? Yes, undoubtedly. All those things and much more. Did his lofty status as a celebrated author play havoc with my own confidence levels as a writer? For sure. Following in his footsteps, I felt like Sophie trying to keep up with the BFG. Which is, I’m sure, part of the reason I didn’t even attempt it until I was in my mid-40s. 

I’ve written stories since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I wrote reams of poetry in my teens and my first novel in my twenties. But I was never brave enough to share my work, possibly for fear of being compared to and inevitably falling well short of my famous uncle. Once I had settled down with my own family and had some time and space out of the rat race, I decided that writing was what I wanted to do – it always had been – and that I just needed to bite the bullet and get on with it.

It’s been a long and arduous road to publication. There is so much to learn – about the craft of writing, the quirks of a strange and mysterious industry, not to mention all the non-writing-related parts of being an author. The time spent on marketing, publicity, self-promotion, website creation, social media presence, how to use Canva, networking, critiquing, reading, analysing, devising craft activities and educational resources, keeping up to date with market trends and the latest published works – the list is endless – far outweighs the time spent actually writing. And don’t get me started on the rejections! They are relentless and soul destroying. You need to develop a skin thicker than a rhinoceros, which I’ve never quite managed.

But when I held my published book in my hands for the first time, it felt like the biggest box of chocolates in the world. In the end, it’s all worth it. And even though there’s little chance that I’ll ever create a Matilda, a Charlie or a James, even though I will forever be a child running behind a giant, I believe in my heart that Roald would be proud.

Saving the Sun by Emma Pearl and illustrated by Sara Uglotti (published in the US by Page Street Kids) can be ordered in via Unity Books Wellington and Auckland or ordered online from Barnes & Noble.

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