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Esio Trot by Roald Dahl was the book picked by our school book club for discussion last week.

A different child picks their favourite book every week, and prepares something to share with the group, after which we discuss different aspects of the book together.

Each week the children are invited to come only if they are interested in the book we are discussing.

The times that children have picked a work by Roald Dahl are the times the classroom has been the most full.  His books remain perennially popular with children, no matter how many years it has been since they were published, or indeed how old or young the readers are.  We have four year groups in our reading club, and children from all four years came to talk about the book, and there were children in every year who had read it. In fact, some of the children could quote sections of the text, something which has never happened before with any book we have talked about.

Esio Trot is about Mr. Hoppy, a man who is hopelessly in love with his downstairs neighbour, Mrs. Silver.  Mr. Hoppy doesn’t know how to tell her about his love, until one day he hears her worrying about the fact that her tortoise, Esio Trot, is not growing any bigger, and how upsetting it is.  He hatches an ingenious plan to make Esio Trot double in size, and by doing so, win the woman of his dreams.

As ever, it is beautifully illustrated by Quentin Blake, whose name has now become synonymous with all of Dahl’s work.

There are some key points about this book, which I think explains the popularity of the story, and indeed, hold true for most of Dahl’s work:

  • The story is short. It is more of a novella than a novel. It would take a confident reader about an hour to finish it.  His other books, although longer, still have short, manageable chapters which make them easy to speed through.
  • The story is funny.  Dahl’s work is not always happy, The Magic Finger, for example, is quite a dark book, and there are sections in all his work that point to the sadness of life. He does not always choose a traditionally happy ending. You only have to read The Witches to see that, but the darkness is always balanced by a tremendous sense of mischief and humour.
  • The story is silly. Dahl is never afraid to be silly. He positively revels in silliness and eccentricity.
  • The story includes material which is not always thought of as suitable for children. Dahl is quite happy to write about the more unsavoury, yet always fascinating aspects of childhood. In Esio Trot there is a lot of play on the word ‘pooh’ for example.  He champions outbreaks of naughtiness, and doesn’t always expect his characters, particularly his children to behave nicely or fairly.  Children love this.
  • Dahl is happy to point out the flaws in grown ups. Grown ups are not always the heroes of his works, or the voice of reason or wisdom. Quite often grown ups are not what they seem.  Mr. Hoppy is quite silly, because he cannot pluck up the courage to talk properly to Mrs. Silver. Mr. Hoppy is also quite devious, because he tricks Mrs. Silver into loving him, and never divulges what he has done.
  • Dahl writes with an eye for what a child sees and hears and thinks and cuts out extraneous information. His work speaks to children because he seemed to have the ability to retain an understanding of how a child operates.
  • Quite often it is as though Dahl is speaking directly to the reader. Sometimes he does do this. He will stop his narrative and ask something of the reader or explain something to the reader.  His work is quite intimate. You feel as if he is talking to you.  This is less obvious in Esio Trot, but is strongly developed in his other, longer books.
  • Dahl delights in language. His poems, his spells, as in Esio Trot, his use of nonsense words, his freedom with language, encourages children to really use their imagination in their own reading and writing.

Esio Trot is a fantastic book to teach in schools because of its length, but also because of the richness of material in even such a short book.  You can create some wonderful lesson plans inventing tortoise grabbing machines and trying them out, making up your own spells to make things grow and shrink etc.  There is lots to talk about and do and plenty of material for some fantastic sparkly writing for your class.

Esio Trot is ideal for children aged about six and upwards. Because Dahl is so popular, it would even stand the test of time for older, year six readers without any problems.  It is suitable for boys and girls.  It would also be great to give to a newly confident child reader who wanted to tackle their first book, but who may not yet be quite ready for a full sized novel.