Children's Literature in Education

, Volume 46, Issue 3, pp 257–277 | Cite as

Children’s Responses to Heroism in Roald Dahl’s Matilda

  • James Pope
  • Julia Round
Original Paper


The paper presents findings from a reader response study conducted in February 2013 with 150 children aged 7–11 in which they discussed extracts and clips from Roald Dahl’s Matilda (1988) and its cinematic adaptation (1996). Dahl and Matilda were chosen because they provoke emphatic responses from adults, often commenting on the effects of Dahl upon young readers, and thus exemplify the uneasy interface between adult perceptions of children’s literature and the child reader. Frequently the criticism and theory applied to children’s literature are an adult’s comments speculating on the child’s interpretation of the child character created by an adult and, with a few exceptions, critical theory surrounding children’s literature has shied away from reader response studies. After reviewing the critical literature surrounding the book and film of Matilda, we summarise the responses to these texts given by the children in a variety of formats. The children’s understanding of heroism and their responses and reactions to Matilda as a hero-character are used to reflect upon the established scholarship. The paper aims to balance literary adult criticism with audience interpretations of this very interesting heroine and in doing so add to our understanding and appreciation of the effects and effectiveness of Dahl’s work.


Hero Heroism Reader response Roald Dahl Matilda 



Thanks to the students of Talbot Combined School, Moordown Saint John’s Church of England Primary School, and Malmesbury Park Primary School.


  1. Bates, Don. (Undated). Movie Review: Matilda. Accessed 2 Feb 2013 from
  2. Bell, Judith. (2000/1999). Doing Your Research Project. Buckingham: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Benton, Michael and Fox, Geoff. (1985). Teaching Literature: Nine to Fourteen. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Carnevale, Alex (2011). In which we consider the macabre unpleasantness of Roald Dahl. Accessed 27 Feb 2013 from
  5. Dahl, Roald. (1988). Matilda. London: Jonathan Cape.Google Scholar
  6. Dahl, Roald (1990). Cited in Penguin Readers Teacher’s Notes. Accessed 27 Feb 2013 from
  7. De Vito, Danny. (Director). (1996). Matilda. Culver City: TriStar Pictures.Google Scholar
  8. Denscombe, Martin (2001/1998). The Good Research Guide. Buckingham: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Eorio, Lena (2012). Big Lessons from a Small Girl: YPG’s Book to Film Club Reviews Matilda. Accessed 14 Mar 2014 from
  10. Fish, Stanley. (1970). Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics. New Literary History, 2, 123–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Fish, Stanley. (1976). Interpreting the “Variorum”. Critical Enquiry, 2(3), 465–485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hall, S. (1973). Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. Birmingham: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.Google Scholar
  13. Huberman, Michael A. and Miles, Matthew B. (1994). Data Management and Analysis Methods. In Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 428–444). Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  14. Hunt, Peter. (2001). Children’s Literature. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  15. Iser, Wolfgang. (1978/1976). The Act of Reading. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  16. Lawson, Terry (1996). Danny Devito Found Delight In Making Dark `Matilda’ For Kids. Accessed 14 Mar 2014 from
  17. Lindlof, Thomas A. (1995). Qualitative Communication Research Methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  18. McQuail, Dennis, ed. (2000). McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory. 4th edn. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  19. Miall, David. S. and Kuiken, Don (1995). Aspects of Literary Response: A New Questionnaire. Research in the Teaching of English. 29, 37–58. Accessed 24 Oct 2012 from
  20. Nell, Victor. (1988). Lost in a Book—The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Petzold, Dieter. (1992). Wish-fulfilment and Subversion: Roald Dahl’s Dickensian Fantasy Matilda. Children’s Literature in Education, 23(4), 185–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Puchta, Claudia and Potter, Jonathan. (2004). Focus Group Practice. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  23. Rea, Steven (1996). Matilda Is SweetAnd So Is Revenge. Accessed 14 Mar 2014 from
  24. Richards, I.A. (1924). Principles of Literary Criticism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Rudd, David. (1992). A Communication Studies Approach to Children’s Literature. Sheffield: Pavic/Sheffield Hallam University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Sarland, Charles. (1999). Critical tradition and ideological positioning. In Peter Hunt (Ed.), Understanding Children’s Literature (pp. 30–49). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  27. Silverman, David. (2005). Doing Qualitative Research, 2nd ed. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  28. West, Mark. (1992). Roald Dahl New York: Twayne.Google Scholar
  29. Wilkie-Stibbs, Christine. (1996). Intertextuality and the child reader. In Peter Hunt (Ed.), Understanding Children’s Literature (pp. 168–179). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  30. Wilmington, Michael (1996). Devito’s `Matilda’ Captures Wickedness, Wit Of Roald Dahl’s Fable. Accessed 14 Mar 2014 from
  31. Worthington, Heather (2012). An Unsuitable Read for a Child? Reconsidering Crime and Violence in Roald Dahl’s Fiction for Children. In Roald Dahl, Alston, Ann and Butler, Catherine (eds.). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. pp. 123–141.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Media SchoolBournemouth UniversityPooleUK

Personalised recommendations