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“Reading is a little like dreaming…”

This review was written by Denis Woychuk and printed in the October 27, 1991 edition of The New York Times.


“Reading is a little like dreaming…”

THE MINPINS By Roald Dahl. Illustrated by Patrick Benson. 48 pp. New York: Viking. $16.95. (Ages 3 to 8)

Reading is a little like dreaming. Slowly, a new world enters your consciousness, and you pass from this reality into the next. The world has changed.

This is exactly what happens in Roald Dahl’s posthumously published story The Minpins, when Little Billy stops “being good” and follows the Devil’s advice. He enters the Forest of Sin clearly wide awake – in fact his senses are heightened, perhaps even overstimulated. Remembering his mother’s warning of a monster that will eat him whole, he quickly identifies distant sounds as those of this terrible creature.

The reader is not so sure. Little Billy may be finding danger where none exists. And the illustrations, to Patrick Benson’s credit, give nothing away. The scene is one of forest beauty, disturbed only by the panic of a young boy in flight.

When Little Billy, in the grip of his senses, glimpses a flash of orange behind him, he knows it’s smoke from dragon-like nostrils; we see what could be splendid fall foliage. We are not yet convinced that Little Billy is running from anything other than his own imagination. Then comes the change. Little Billy hears the whoosh whoosh of the forest wind turn to the woomph-woomph of heavy footfalls, feels hot breath on his back and smells “the stench that comes from deep inside the tummy of a meat-eating animal.” Suddenly it is not just his panic anymore. It is our panic.

“Mummy! Save me!” he cries. But Mummy is not there to save him.

In this, his 21st children’s book – the others include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach – Dahl, who died last November, characteristically doesn’t pull punches. The nasty, brutish horrors of his stories are one reason children love him. He has gained their affection by recognizing the enemy in parents and schoolteachers. In Matilda, the reader is similarly reluctant to entertain the heroine’s fears until they prove to be far worse than even she claimed. And Dahl can inspire. The BFG, in which a giant kidnaps a girl and deposits her in the Queen’s bedroom, was suspected of inspiring an actual break-in at Buckingham Palace. In The Minpins his evocative spell has worked its macabre magic once again, and, for readers as well as for Little Billy, the nightmare is real.

With the monster in pursuit, Little Billy swings onto a low branch and climbs to temporary safety. Here he meets the Minpins, those tiny tree–dwelling people who give the book its name. They too fear this creature, which preys on their people, forcing them to seek refuge in trees and travel by bird.

The birds are marvelous, Mr. Benson’s illustrations bursting with magic. The birds give Little Billy an idea. Mounting a magnificent swan, he soon is flying, teasing the terrible brute and, in a chase scene that rivals any movie for its visual strength and pacing, luring it to its demise.

But even Roald Dahl has his imperfections, and there are a couple in The Minpins. The first is the Bunyanesque name “Forest of Sin,” a designation increasingly inappropriate as the story progresses. Although inhabited by a fierce beast, the forest is primarily one of dreams come true. The reality of the monster, and not the allegorical effects, gives the story its power. The second flaw is that having the hero follow the Devil’s advice fails to do justice to Little Billy’s own desire to explore. Curiosity leads him to adventure. His own resourceful courage lets him triumph over evil.

And is that triumph the end of the story?

Most certainly not. If it were, The Minpins would merely be another tale of adventure. It is far more. Roald Dahl’s story is as brilliant and as unexpected as a dream, filled with soaring excitement and happy resolutions and some very good advice:

“Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you. . . . Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”