Photos courtesy of Steiff and Roald Dahl’s “Celebrate 100” Day
We all know the famous “Six Degrees of Separation Game” and, for me, one of the nicest “connections” is my near association with Roald Dahl. Born in Wales in 1916, if Dahl hadn’t passed away in 1990, this year would have marked the legendary author’s 100th birthday. Instead, his estate is celebrating the centenary of his birth and has permitted many of his notable characters to be translated into licensed works of collectible art.
During my time as an editor in children’s book publishing, I had the great good fortune to work on the release of many of his books as American editions. A household name in the United Kingdom, Dahl was known in the USA as primarily the author of WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (though in its book form, it was actually entitled CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) and for his other kid-centric novels such as MATILDA and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. An author of a score of children’s books, Dahl had much more acclaim in Great Britain than he had in America. I’m not saying that I changed it, but I was lucky enough to be on the team of editors who were busy packaging, re-packaging, and promoting his books to a U.S. audience.
Dahl had passed away in 1990, long before I had gone to work in the children’s book division, and his widow was his literary executor when I was a part of the Dahl projects. Via long-distance phone calls, and one memorable visit to our publishing house, we got to chat with her at great length and discovered the legacy of the man who never imagined that he would become a beloved children’s author.
During the summer of 2016, Steiff has joined the creative celebration of Dahl’s literary life and times with its bear tributes. Three of his most recognizable creations have been given the Steiff treatment: Willy Wonka, proprietor of the world-famous chocolate conglomerate; Charlie Bucket, winner of the Golden Ticket and a chance to have his sweetest dreams come true; and the BFG, an abbreviated, shorthand version of the Big Friendly Giant. Incidentally, Steven Spielberg has also commemorated the Dahl festivities with his big-budget Disney version of THE BFG, which hit theaters in July.
The Steiff bears are all based upon the Quentin Blake illustrations, which does make sense since Blake is Dahl’s most famous artistic collaborator. Other artists had the opportunity to transform the prose into compelling images, and did well, but it is really Blake who is most closely associated with the writer.
The “Willy Wonka Teddy Bear” stands 11 inches tall, is made of exquisite mohair, boasts that classic “Button in Ear,” and is available in 1,916 pieces (the year of Dahl’s birth). He is the first entry in Steiff’s Roald Dahl Collection. Even for folks who have never read the book, the immortal portrayal onscreen of Wonka by comedian Gene Wilder is a favorite childhood memory. The musicalized version of the novel has become a cult classic, and it is also celebrating a milestone in 2016. The film is now 45 years old, having first been released in 1971.
The next two Steiff pieces — which, I believe, are going to be shipped to America in November of this year — are the “Charlie Bucket Teddy Bear” and “The BFG Bear.” Charlie matches his mentor Willy Wonka with an availability of 1,916 pieces. Standing 9 inches tall, and made of blond mohair, Charlie comes with the ticket that opens up his life to a world of unexpected and endless possibilities.
“The BFG Teddy Bear” also has a November shipping date. It stands an impressive 15 inches — it is a giant, after all — and is made of apricot mohair. The Big Friendly Giant is limited to 1,000 pieces, and it seems like the Steiff designers should (hopefully) offer a little “Sophie Teddy Bear” to accompany its debut. We’ll all have to sit back and see if other Dahl heroes and heroines come down the pike between now and December.
Considered one of the 50 greatest British writers since World War II — he attained that recognition from the London Times newspaper — Dahl had an illustrious career in the military during the war years as an RAF aviator, an intelligence gatherer, and a participant in covert espionage. (Obviously, full details of his goings-on have never been thoroughly released or chronicled. His activities have remained clad in murkiness and mystery.)
He wrote many books for adults, and his children’s books have a penchant for being rather macabre, a bit grotesque, and sometimes quite unblinking about bad behavior and irrational, sadistic hatred. Because he wrote about children for children, he did not back away from some of the awfulness that kids have had to face in their daily lives. Because he often had his children characters having to deal with the atrocious behavior of adults, unflinchingly questioning grown-up decisions, many parent groups looked to boycott and ban Dahl’s works.
Roald Dahl became a part of classroom curriculum and a staple on library shelves because educators gravitated to the life lessons that his novels imparted. True, the children often got the upper hand on really horrible, really quite disgusting adults — and that did not sit well with PTA groups — but the “kids vs. adults” battles were more than just a child’s fantasy of rebellion. His plots really summed up any person who has ever felt powerless, having to deal with a bully and then striving to overcome adversity.
Whether it is a telepathic elementary-school genius (like MATILDA) or a very clever four-legged critter (THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX), Dahl excelled at promoting the determination and grit of an underdog in the face of an overreaching, overly oppressive society.
And that’s saying a lot for a so-called “children’s author.”