clock menu more-arrow no yes

Roald Dahl's 11 best — and worst — children's books, ranked

What would children’s literature be without the singular voice of Roald Dahl? Over the course of his long career, the British novelist wrote more than 30 works populated with clever children and frequently monstrous adults, sprinkled with made-up words, and shot through with sly, surprisingly dark humor. His stories were set in richly imagined worlds, taking place everywhere from the bowels of a mysterious chocolate factory to the heart of an impossibly huge peach — even outer space.

Troubling personal politics aside, Dahl is responsible for some of children’s literature’s most memorable characters, from sadistic candymaker Willy Wonka to telekinetic Matilda to the sly, resourceful Fantastic Mr. Fox — many of whom have now been immortalized onscreen as well as on the page.

And today is Dahl's hundredth birthday. In honor of the occasion, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to create a definitive ranking of Dahl’s children’s books. Read on to find out where each one ended up.

Please note that we only considered full-length works, not short stories, and that these rankings are immutable and 100 percent accurate.

11) George’s Marvelous Medicine (1981)

George's Marvelous Medicine Puffin Books

George's Marvelous Medicine

George’s grandmother has a puckered mouth and teeth stained pale brown. She forces her 8-year-old grandson to make her endless cups of tea and eat cabbage riddled with bugs. She’s a thoroughly unpleasant woman. So George decides to shake her up; he makes her a dose of medicine.

Gleefully he mixes together curry powder and shampoo and antifreeze and other substances he finds lying around the house — but when he feeds it to his grandmother, it doesn’t have quite the effect he had in mind. It makes her grow, becoming unimaginably large. Which, George’s father proclaims, means George has effectively solved world hunger!

Wait — huh?

Yeah, that solving-world-hunger angle comes out of nowhere at the end, as does the rest of the story’s not-exactly-resolution. Add to that the sheer bitterness of the premise, and you have one of Dahl’s most uneven works. —Constance Grady

10) Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972)

Speaking of bitterness, there was no shortage of it on display in the sequel to Dahl’s most famous and most-beloved book. Moving the action as far away from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory as possible, Dahl puts his heroes, Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, in a great glass elevator for what amounts to an epic road (space) trip with Charlie’s whole family, complete with all the long-suffering "are we there yet?" moments such a description implies.

But Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator also contains scathing, largely clichéd diatribes against US politics, including a weirdly infantilized look at the US president. Charlie’s two loving grandmothers from the previous book are abruptly transformed at the beginning of this one into unbearable, demonized examples of every shallow human trait Dahl can think to burden them with. By the time the Vermicious Knids come along, you’re rooting for the aliens to win and wishing Charlie were still mooning by the chocolate river. What was Dahl thinking? —Aja Romano

9) Revolting Rhymes (1982)

Revolting Rhymes Puffin Books

Revolting Rhymes.

A collection of rhyming poems, Revolting Rhymes isn’t a "typical" Dahl book. But the author’s singsong retellings of six famous fairy tales — with all the grotesque details Disney left out — provide an apt showcase for his twisted sense of humor. This makes sense, since Dahl’s stories already borrow so much from fairy-tale tropes; almost all of his children’s stories involve neglected kids, villainous hags, and/or impossibly magical creatures.

Still: Dahl takes fairy tales to another level in Revolting Rhymes, creating a bloodbath out of Cinderella’s romance, making Little Red Riding Hood a stone-cold killer, and saddling Snow White with seven gambling-addict dwarfs. As with all of Dahl’s best works, Revolting Rhymes is incredibly strange and even disturbing, but often a whole lot of fun. —Caroline Framke

8) The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (1977)

The Henry Sugar anthology is an odd one to consume in the middle of a Roald Dahl binge, but it’s always been one of my favorites. It is, in a word, variable: There are minor short stories, like the forgettable one with the giant tortoise (no, not Esio Trot, the other one), and autobiographical accounts of Dahl’s life, including how his time as a fighter pilot in World War II led him to start writing.

But the crown jewel of the book is the title story: the tale of Henry Sugar, a selfish gambler who teaches himself to see through solid objects in order to cheat at cards and eventually reforms himself into a secular saint. It has all the sweetness and heart of the best of Dahl’s full-length novels, but it’s tinged with unmistakable melancholy. —Constance Grady

7) Fantastic Mr. Fox (1968)

Dahl took a short break from sympathizing with humans in Fantastic Mr. Fox, the only book on this list told from the perspective of a (particularly clever) group of animals. But the titular Mr. Fox is exactly the kind of hero Dahl loves; namely, he’s always the smartest person fox in the room. It’s a thin volume, but the conflict between the Fox family and three greedy farmers is rich in detail, layered with tidbits covering everything from Farmer Bean’s addiction to alcoholic cider to the elaborate dinner party courses Mrs. Fox prepares with the spoils that her fantastic husband triumphantly steals from beneath the dumb farmers’ noses. —Caroline Framke

6) The Witches (1983)

The Witches Puffin Books

The Witches.

The Witches is a pitch-black horror story about a boy who finds himself smack dab in the middle of an international conference of evil women. Luckily, he has a shrewd and savvy grandmother who has made him as witch-proof as any boy can be.

With their elegant white gloves and their long, pointed heels masking hideous bodies, Dahl’s witches lurk in ordinary society, waiting to prey on innocent children. The Witches doesn’t flirt with outright misogyny so much as skywrite "women aren’t what they seem!" But Dahl’s witches are compelling, fascinating, and powerful — and ultimately it’s their power that turns a straightforward cautionary tale thoroughly on its head, resulting in one of his most memorable books. This fable of mice and (wo)men manages to be warm, whimsical, and spine-tingling all at once; I reread it every Halloween and find myself deliciously creeped out every time. —Aja Romano

5) Danny, Champion of the World (1975)

Dahl is fantastic at describing whimsical settings, but most of them aren’t places you’d actually want to live in: Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory would doubtless maim you, in Mr. Fox’s den you’d be attacked by murderous farmers, and the BFG’s native land is home to scores of bigger, less friendly giants.

No, if you made me choose a Dahl book to live in, it would be Danny. I want to hang out in that cozy caravan Danny shares with his father as it’s gently pelted by an apple tree, and eat roast pheasant (the food of kings, according to Danny’s father). I want to learn top-secret poaching tips and plump raisins in water to make pheasant bait. Dahl never wrote another world that made you want to crawl inside the pages and curl up there quite as much. — Constance Grady

4) James and the Giant Peach (1961)

For a book that opens on a little boy struggling under the tyrannical rule of his abusive aunts — a straight-up Dickensian dilemma — James and the Giant Peach tells an incredibly lovely story. It has an overlying sense of wonder, as conveyed through the mysterious creatures that first grow the titular peach to mammoth size, the jolly centipede causing constant mischief with his 100 (or maybe just 42) shoes, and the short-fused giants that James and his magical new insect friends meet when their swollen stone fruit floats up into the sky. But the engine that keeps this book moving — and the reason it continues to resonate so deeply — isn’t the giant peach but James’s giant heart. —Caroline Framke

3) Matilda (1988)

If you were a fan of Dahl as a youngster, chances are you were a bookish kid with an active imagination. And what more glorious fantasy existed for all of us bookish, imaginative kids than the idea that our minds could make miraculous things happen, even in the world beyond our heads?

Matilda’s telekinesis might seem of a piece with today’s never-ending stream of superhero movies, but Dahl’s 1988 novel extols the virtues of brain power over superpowers. Matilda is a thrilling story of intelligence and ingenuity triumphing over TV-dulled ignorance, a love song to classic novels, and an utterly satisfying tale of a child serving a bit of justice to grown-ups for the indignities both small and large that are part and parcel of being a kid. Plus, despite the unfortunate fate of poor Bruce Bogtrotter, it always leaves me with a craving for chocolate cake. —Tanya Pai

2) The BFG (1982)

Dahl’s prose has a rhythm all its own, with peculiar turns of phrase and a penchant for streaking off into rhyming verse bumping up against each other to create something wholly unique. And The BFG‘s story of a little orphan girl and the big friendly giant she befriends may be Dahl’s finest example of his gift for wordplay. The pages are packed with nonsense terms that nevertheless evoke exactly what they intend to (you know just what you’re getting with snozzcumbers); and the passage where the BFG explains to Sophie what humans from each country taste like is a wit-filled delight.

And while there are some truly horrific aspects to the story — orphans getting locked in the cellar with rats; giants who crunch up humans like popcorn — there’s plenty of wonder as well. The idea that the stars have a silvery music all their own, and that our dreams come not from the workings of our unconscious minds but via the whims of a gentle giant from a faraway land, is as captivating and wrenchingly beautiful as an adult as it was in childhood. —Tanya Pai

1) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)

There’s so much wonderful weirdness lurking in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a heartwarming story of a poor boy whose goodness earns him the coveted golden ticket that allows him to meet Willy Wonka, the plum-and-green-clad chocolatier. His journey to Wonka’s factory is nothing short of a dream. There’s so much to see: Everlasting Gobstoppers! Snozzberries! Chocolate mixing via waterfall! And you get to eat nothing but sweets all day long! Sure, the entire factory definitely needs a visit from DEFRA, but what mysterious chocolate factory run by a sociopathic maniacal supergenius doesn’t?

Charlie ultimately wins a fantasy apprenticeship with the world’s greatest candymaker, while the other children on his factory tour, all greedy and spoiled, learn unpleasant karmic lessons about the dangers of selfishness. It’s a lovely, chocolate-powered morality play — until you realize Wonka is housing a slave nation of Ewoks turned sweatshop workers.

Then there’s the decimating poverty and literal starvation that Charlie and his family endure, the four grandparents who’ve all shared the same bed without leaving it for 20 years, and the truly creeptastic ends that each of Charlie’s competitors meet at the hands of the unperturbed Wonka. Oh, and have I mentioned all the pederastic vibes and the overt BDSM overtones? (Remember the actual whips used for whipping cream?)

Despite — and because of — all this bizarreness, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remains one of the most influential children’s books ever written. Without Charlie, we’d have no Harry Potter, no Coraline. Its caricatures of spoiled kids and narcissistic parents are unerring and timeless; its satirical takes on human nature are pointed and merciless. Veruca Salt, Augustus Gloop, Mike Teavee, and Violet Beauregarde may be revolting children, but there’s a part of all of us that would be right there beside them, reaching for that extra-special chewing gum. —Aja Romano

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.