Flashback Fridays: Putting my finger on it . . .

You’re a child with an amazing bit of magic.  You don’t quite have complete control over it–and can’t predict what it will do when you get angry, but when you use your finger to bespell someone, one thing’s for sure: they’ll never be the same again!

Do you remember:

The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Puffin, c1966)

Quite possibly the first time I encountered the works of Roald Dahl, it was this book that my mother read to me.  I don’t think that she was particularly prepared for this one. (She only read it once, but I read, and re-read it dozens of times after).  One of Dahl’s short works for intermediate readers, this story of magic and characters getting their come-uppence is creepy without being ultimately too dark for the audience.  In  fact I’d  daresay that the methods of magical hexing in this story were deliciously off-kilter from anything I’d encountered before.

A young girl with magical abilities that no one really knows about or can predict.  And she’s got a tendency to use them when she gets angry.  When her neighboring Gregg family goes about hunting animals with gleeful  violence,  she uses her magic finger on them.  The Greggs find themselves in a “turn about is fair play” kind of idea, where they are shrunk down and given bird wings.    Suddenly the Greggs find themselves the hunted and the ducks the hunters.  When they are finally turned back to themselves they’re a changed family with a disinterest in further hunting.

It’s a brief story.  No explanation is given for our young lady’s peculiar powers.  We don’t actually get any kind of character arc for her at all–she’s in the story mainly to set things in motion.  But that’s the intended style here, and it works marvelously well when you’re a young reader not quite up to middle grade stories yet, but hungry for something more sophisticated than the usual fare.  The fact that the magic isn’t twee or cute or happy is a huge thing.  This magic is wild and dangerous and seems more on par with the stuff of the original fairy tales.  I loved this story despite the fact that there isn’t a lot of “meat” on its bones so to speak.  I sort of imagined my own stories for this girl with the magic finger, and what other folks she might run into.

The message in this book is certainly not subtle. And plenty of readers may find the objection to hunting animals (as well as guns in general) to be something they do not see eye to eye with.  Dahl makes no bones about what he’s writing, though his protagonist’s magic is not necessarily bound to be moral, but tends to teach individuals a lesson who cross her in some way.  The girl’s poor teacher (who, yes, is a pretty nasty sort) gets turned into a creature after she confronts the protagonist about a misspelling of a word.  Given the rather amoral approach in this first event, I think this makes the issue of hunting less of a “preachy” message and more of simply one to consider.  It’s certainly not a bad idea to get people thinking and imagining issues differently.

To be honest I’m rather surprised this particular work of Dahl’s has never been used for a movie, or taken up as the vehicle for a a TV series. (I mean, a girl who every week encounters someone else whom the magic can teach a lesson to? ).  But I’ve already read it to my son and hope he’ll soon be able to read the book himself.   It’s a great work to introduce budding fantasy readers to the genre.

So, who would you put the Magic Finger on?  comments welcome!

About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on April 11, 2015, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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