To celebrate ''Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'''s 50th birthday, we've revisited Dahl's most kaleidoscope classics

By Stephan Lee
October 03, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Lowdown
There are two portraits of Roald Dahl. One version paints him as the heroic WWII vet who started writing children’s fantasies to entertain his own children. Another paints him as a crank who tormented his publishers and aired anti-Semitic opinions in interviews. In fact, rereading some of your favorite Dahl classics may be unnerving. Does The Witches promote distrust of women? Why do overweight characters get punished so brutally? Are we supposed to be okay with a flatulent giant snatching a little girl from her bedroom? But even the most jaded reader can’t deny Dahl’s brilliant storytelling. He understood that for kids, life can be horrifying and unfair, yet magical. Matilda remains a touchstone for any misunderstood bookworm, present or former. And who wouldn’t kill for a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory? So if you’re about to take the plunge into the world of Dahl’s imagination, know that you might end up rethinking your childhood — and get ready to be surprised, disgusted, scared, and utterly transported.

Dahl’s Most Scrumdiddlyumptious Morsels
Of the author’s 21 children’s books — novels, stories, poetry, memoir — these eight are the ones that kept us awake with fear and wonder when we were children, and they still astound and amaze us today

1. James and the Giant Peach (1961)
This surreal novel finds a boy traveling the universe inside the titular fuzzy fruit along with some mutant insects, including an arrogant centipede and a nurturing ladybug.

2. Danny the Champion of the World (1975)
The father-son classic is Dahl’s least fantastical but sweetest novel. Danny and his beloved dad scheme to steal birds from a greedy landowner.

3. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)
Dahl’s most famous confection stands in the pantheon of children’s literature alongside Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Harry Potter. It introduced into pop culture the miniature indentured servants Oompa-Loompas, the sinister yet irresistible chocolatier Willy Wonka, and a whole line of whimsical candies.

4. The BFG (1982)
For a tale about a dream-dispensing Big Friendly Giant, this epic adventure is surprisingly scary and violent. Dahl, who at 6’6” was a bit of a giant himself, counted The BFG as his favorite of his books.

5. Boy (1984)
In Dahl’s first memoir, we see how details of the author’s childhood — a love of Cadbury chocolates, frequent run-ins with school authority, family tragedies — inspired his best work.

6. Matilda (1988)
So many images and characters from this gem are etched in our memory: the Trunchbull, the Chokey, Miss Honey, telekinesis. Matilda gave us hope that one day our nerdiness would turn into power.

7. Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970)
A cunning fox engages in a turf war with a trio of bumbling farmers. The slender tale has been adapted as an opera, a play, and a stop-motion film directed by Wes Anderson.

8. The Witches (1983)
Be warned: Any woman wearing gloves and chunky shoes could be a child killer! Misogyny aside, the narrator’s hulking, tall-tale-telling Norwegian grandmother is one of Dahl’s greatest characters.

Adults Only
My Uncle Oswald (1979)
Sex and violence abound in Dahl’s many books for grown-ups. In one of the most twisted, Oswald, the title character — labeled ”the greatest fornicator of all time” — schemes to collect bodily fluids of famous men such as Picasso and Albert Einstein.

Other (In)famous Not-For-Kids Titles
Switch Bitch, The Great Automatic Grammatizator, Over to You, Skin, Kiss Kiss

Scariest Moments
Dahl’s novels brim with frightening, cold-sweat-down-your-back scenes

The Witches
The Grand High Witch removes her mask and wig, revealing her ”cankered and worm-eaten” skin.

Sadistic headmistress the Trunchbull throws misbehaving students in the Chokey, a narrow cupboard lined with broken glass.

James and the Giant Peach
On the opening page, an escaped rhino devours poor James’ parents.

Schoolkids disappear from their dorm rooms after a giant attack, leaving behind piles of bones.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Oompa-Loompas are terrifying! They sing cheerfully of the grisly demise of children as the kiddies drop like sugar-loving flies.

Five Things We Learned From…
Lucy Mangan’s just-published Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory:

1. In an early draft of the novel, there were 10 golden-ticket winners, not five.
2. Oompa-Loompas were first called Whipple-Scrumpets.
3. Producers considered Joel Grey for the Willy Wonka role in the first movie but worried that at 5’5”, he’d be shorter than some of the kids.
4. Gene Wilder, the original Willy Wonka, said of his young costars, ”Four of them are wonderful, and one of them I’m going to throw through a window tomorrow.” (He was referring to 11-year-old Paris Themmen, who played Mike Teavee.)
5. Concerns from the NAACP led producers to change the look of the Oompa-Loompas. In the book they’re described as ”a tribe of pygmies [from] the deepest and darkest part of Africa.”

Fat Phobia
Some of the charges leveled against Dahl are debatable. But one thing is for sure: He was definitely guilty of fat-shaming.

Bruce Bogtrotter is forced to consume an inhuman amount of cake as punishment.

The Witches
Gluttonous Bruno Jenkins gets transformed into a mouse. Things go downhill after that.

James and the Giant Peach
A rolling peach squashes the comically obese Aunt Sponge.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Augustus Gloop clogs a chocolate pipe. Freudians had a field day.

The Roald Dahl Glossary

Gobblefunk (GOB-bul-funk) a made-up language

Jumpsquiffling (jump-SKWIF-ling) very large

Muggled (MUG-ulled) confused

Snozzcumber (SNOZ-cum-ber) giant black-and-white, cucumberlike food covered with nasty warts

Whizzpopping (WIZ-pop-ping) passing gas

Whoppsy-whiffling (WOP-see-wiff-ling) super-awesome