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Join Meryl Streep, Taika Waititi for Roald Dahl Charity Read-Along

Mindy Kaling, Liam and Chris Hemsworth, and Benedict Cumberbatch are among the celebrities collaborating to raise money for COVID-19 relief efforts

Filmmaker Taika Waititi will lead celebrities in a virtual reading of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach to raise funds for the fight against COVID-19. (Roald Dahl Story Company)
smithsonianmag.com

Amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are struggling to keep their children’s sleep schedules on track. Luckily, those worried their bedtime stories lack pizzazz can now call in a star-studded lineup of reinforcements.

As Reuters reports, celebrities including Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Ryan Reynolds, Meryl Streep, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, Mindy Kaling, and Eddie Redmayne have joined forces for a virtual reading of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. Organized by Oscar-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi, the read-along will raise funds for Partners In Health (PIH), a nonprofit organization fighting COVID-19 in some of the most vulnerable countries around the world.

Watching videos of the group reading is akin to sitting in on a rapturous conference call with famous actors. Per a statement, Waititi has split Dahl’s classic 1961 novel into ten episodes, three of which have already been posted online. New segments will be released every Monday, Wednesday and Friday via the Roald Dahl YouTube channel.

The Thor: Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit director describes Dahl’s “wacky, wonderful tale”—which follows its titular character’s adventures aboard a staggeringly large peach populated by giant talking insects—“is about resilience in children, triumph over adversity and dealing with a sense of isolation which couldn’t been more relevant today.”

Hosting the James and the Giant Peach read-along isn’t Waititi’s first foray into the British storyteller’s world: In March, Netflix announced that the filmmaker is set to write, direct and executive produce two animated series based on Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. One will focus on the Oompa-Loompas employed in Willy Wonka’s eponymous candy-making factory, while the other will be more directly linked to Dahl’s 1964 novel, according to a statement.

Since its publication in 1961, James and the Giant Peach has sold some 28 million copies, reports Variety’s Todd Spangler. In 1996, the beloved book was adapted into a live-action and stop-motion animation film.

Known largely for his writing, Dahl was also a fighter pilot, spy and medical innovator, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

One year before James and the Giant Peach was published, Dahl’s infant son, Theo, was struck by a taxi in New York City, the Roald Dahl Story Company, which oversees the author’s oeuvre, notes on its website.

Theo sustained a skull fracture during the accident and soon developed hydrocephalus, a condition in which fluid builds up inside of the brain’s ventricles, or cavities, and puts pressure on its sensitive tissue. Dahl had always been fascinated by medicine, and his son’s condition found him deeply involved in nearly every aspect of Theo’s treatment.

When a valve Theo was fitted with to drain this excess fluid kept clogging, “Dahl set about solving the problem with the help of a neurosurgeon—and a toymaker,” wrote Tom Solomon, a physician and friend of the writer, for the Guardian in 2016.

Through this collaboration, Dahl helped invent what would later be called the Wade-Dahl-Till valve—a type of cerebral shunt that cost less than a third of its predecessors. Theo never received the valve, as his condition had sufficiently improved by the time it was completed, but the technology was eventually used in thousands of patients, according to a 2011 article published in the journal Acta Neurochirurgica.

In 1965, Dahl’s wife—actress Patricia Neal—suffered a massive stroke that inflicted significant brain damage. Against the prevailing wisdom of the time, the author designed an intensive, six-hours-a-day treatment plan that saw Neal make a full recovery—and even earn a second Oscar nomination, wrote Solomon for the Guardian.

Dahl outlined the principles of his plan in a guide that was then developed into a book. The ensuing movement sparked by this treatise led to the creation of the Stroke Association.

Viewers have already donated nearly $65,000 to the COVID-19 fundraiser. (Click here to make a contribution.) The Roald Dahl Story Company will match all donations up to $1 million.

“We know from experience that the impact of this virus will be felt most by vulnerable communities around the world,” Ophelia Dahl, the late author’s daughter—and PIH’s founder—tells Alison Flood of the Guardian.

Those in need of an inspirational example of generosity need look no further than a passage from the book itself: “Oh, James, James! Could I please have just a tiny taste of your marvelous peach?” asks a little girl as dozens of children surround James’ peculiar mode of transport.

“Of course you can!” James answers. “Everyone can have some!”

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