We are reading James and the Giant Peach and I’m not quite following this storyline. I’m reading aloud to the kids from my childhood copy, which is covered in red crayon scribblings. Even as a child it seems I didn’t care much for this book – I don’t remember being upset when a younger sister or brother defaced the back cover. I’ve never related much to animal stories, even when the animals are just stand-ins for human beings. In the same way that I can’t bring myself to follow the plot in animated films, I need real people in my books. I know it’s blasphemous to say so, but for me, Where the Wild Things Are is a book about a boy who gets in trouble, has an adventure, and then comes back home to find his supper still hot. My eyes glaze over the entire middle section, where Max becomes king of the Wild Things. I want to know what Max did wrong to deserve being sent to bed without supper, and whether his supper is still hot because his mother warmed it up again or whether we are supposed to conclude that he was away for no time at all because the wild things were in fact just a dream. I am far more preoccupied with the domestic drama than with where the wild things are.
This is my third time rolling down the garden slope inside the cavernous peach, and I still don’t remember much of the middle, where James meets the grasshopper and ladybug and centipede and all the other animals who have made their home inside the fully-furnished fruit. I’m caught up in the human story that begins, like so many of Dahl’s beloved tales, with a child in an unhappy family who gets lifted out of his misery by a fantastical turn of events that lands him in an entirely different and much-improved situation. James’ parents die in an accident that recalls the famous parenthetical at the beginning of Lolita, where Nabokov relates succinctly but suggestively that the narrator’s mother “died in a very freak accident (picnic, lightning)” – leaving us to imagine the rest. James’ parents “suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.” I read that line quickly and looked up to see if the kids had followed. It’s a sentence that demands a pause when reading aloud – you don’t just go on breezily to the next paragraph after the main character’s parents get eaten by an escaped zoo animal, even if you’ve only known that character for two pages.
“Ima, keep reading, keep reading,” my son urged, as he does whenever I stop. I want to ask the kids if this reminds them of anything – of all the other books we’ve read in which the parents die or disappear on the opening pages. It’s every child’s fantasy and nightmare – to be liberated from their parents and to find adventure elsewhere, in a large country house with a secret garden or an enormous wardrobe leading to another realm. But my kids have already moved past the rhinoceros accident and want to know what it going to happen to James. So I read to them about the two horrible aunts who take him in, the fat, greedy Aunt Sponge and the bony, ghastly Aunt Spiker, who put James to work chopping wood. Until one day James meets an elfin old man, small and balding, who hands him a bag of magical green seeds, but James trips, and the seeds spill and fall into the earth – and we worry for a moment that this will be another devastating loss for recently-orphaned James. Except that instead it leads to all sorts of marvelous adventures involving the insects that ingest the seeds and the peach that grows magically bigger and bigger and eventually tramples the hideous aunts to death, so that for much of the book James is the only human character and the drama revolves around the centipede’s boots and the earthworm’s blindness and I keep reading but I’m not paying all that much attention anymore.
And yet my kids are riveted. They pore over every picture, trying to make out the finest details. They ask me questions about the intricacies of the plot – how exactly does James use the earthworm and the spider’s silken threads to bait the seagulls and rescue their sailing peach from the sharks threatening to eat it? I have to stop every few pages to remind them to take another bite of their sandwiches – we read during lunch, as soon as they come home from school and before they start their homework. They forget the food in front of them, their mouths gaping open I read of the giant peach that rises out of the water on seagulls’ wings.
Meanwhile I’m still focused on the elfin man and his bag of rustling green seeds, which transport James out of his wood-chopping drudgery into a world of magical creatures. School is not all that exciting for my kids, and nor is an afternoon of homework and violin practice and the unvarying evening triumvirate of bathtime, dinner, bed. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, and they can’t invite friends over or attend birthday parties or play in the crowded playground. But the books we read are the magical seeds that lift the kids up, up and away from the fractions and the sandwiches and the violin scales. I feel fortunate that I get to be not just their parent—disciplining and demanding because daily devotion demands that too—but also the elfin man who bends down to proffer the magic. In a way I’m luckier – he scurries away leaving James with the bag of seeds, but I get to watch them grow and sprout. With every page we read together, our home reminds me more and more of the magical giant peach.