Since 1964, generations of children have rejoiced in Roald Dahl’s most famous children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — it remains one of the most iconic books of childhood for many readers. A mere mention of the book conjures up memories of chocolate rivers, transparent elevators that move in every direction and sadistic-yet-fascinating chocolatiers who bequeath their exquisite factories to underprivileged children. The year 2014 marks 50 years since the world was introduced to the quiet, timid Charlie Bucket, the bizarre Oompa-Loompas, the eccentric Willy Wonka and his incredible universe of chocolate. It is a momentous occasion, worthy of celebration — which is why one wonders why Penguin Books decided to ruin it. The publishing house’s 50th-anniversary edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which has been added to the Penguin Modern Classics series, has a new cover, one that has set the internet ablaze with indignation. I feel like joining the legions of people clamouring for a reprint, claiming that the new cover destroyed their childhoods.
Does anyone remember that part of the book filled with a bunch of scary dolls? No? Neither do I, which is why the new cover design flummoxes me. It shows an inert, heavily made up girl; her platinum-blond hair falls in immaculate waves, she wears a pink bow and a feather boa and stares blankly into nothingness. The cover image is a detail from a photograph that was part of a French photoshoot for a retro-fashion story in the magazine, Numéro, in 2008. Photographed by Mauro Mongiello and Sofia Sanchez, the picture in its entirety shows the creepy, doll-like girl sitting next to her mother, who herself is rigid, expressionless and with not a hair out of place (the photoshoot was called “Mommie Dearest”). It is not a cheerful thought that the girl who will now adorn the cover of a beloved children’s classic looks like she belongs on the sets of Toddlers and Tiaras.
Getting to be a part of the Modern Classics library is a privilege very few children’s books have received — Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter is one — revealing a prevalent belief that children’s fiction is not as important as adult fiction. Penguin has also pitched its new venture as the “adult edition” of the book. It is possible that the Modern Classics cover of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory illustrates a move to lure adult readers into purchasing books that were actually written for children by re-publishing them with stylish cover designs. Some believe that it will save adults the “embarrassment” of being seen reading children’s books in public. It is not impossible — sometimes, it is perhaps even welcome — to make interesting, modern cover designs for classics. The brand new designs help readers view the books as must-haves, but at the same time they reveal a vital part about the actual work of literature within the pages of the book. Penguin, in fact, has gained a fair amount of fame for some of its striking cover redesigns, mostly of classics. For example, the design created for the Emily Brontë masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, by Ruben Toledo — as part of Penguin’s Graphic Deluxe series — has the edginess of a sketch by a fashion designer.
Dahl, in fact, features in the same series; the new cover made by Jordan Crane for James and the Giant Peach is vivid and modern; it shows a boy with flaming red hair tripping and falling over, and the letters spelling out the name of the book are covered in a sort of peach-like fluff. The design is unmistakably contemporary, and yet it is the sort of book cover that children would be attracted to as much as adults would. The new edition of Charlie, with its weird and wholly unnecessary new cover, however, is not a book one is likely to pick as a present for a child. It is not hard to see what the designers may have been aiming for — Dahl was darker than a lot of well-loved children’s authors, and in many ways, the book is subversive. It censures greed, and characters such as Veruca Salt symbolize wealthy, pampered children who gain from the exploitation of labourers (we all remember how Violet Beauregarde acquired her golden ticket). It is also about the complex, bizarre relationships that parents and children share, a premise that Dahl delved into deeply in his other works as well. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the badly-behaved children are put in their place in various, humiliating ways — one topples down a mucky trash chute, another bloats up to look like a huge blueberry — while Willy Wonka watches with sadistic pleasure. The problem with the cover is that the designers were off the mark in the darkness that they chose to illustrate. If there is one thing that Dahl’s books for children are not, it is sexual. (His diabolical adult fiction is a wholly different matter.) And yet, the little girl on the cover is eerily Stepford-like. She cannot remind readers of either Violet Beauregarde or Veruca Salt: unlike her, both these girls were overflowing with rambunctious, insolent energy, as children perhaps should.
The most unforgettable of Dahl’s protagonists — Charlie, James, Matilda — are timorous people who accomplish something anyway. The shy, quiet Charlie wins Wonka’s contest because he is shy and quiet. The orphaned James, regularly thrashed and starved by his aunts, makes friends with peculiar creepy-crawlies who reside in the giant peach; soon he crosses over to New York, where “hundreds and hundreds of children” land up at the doorstep of his new peach-pip house. “The saddest and loneliest little boy that you could find now had all the friends and playmates in the world,” writes Dahl. Matilda discovers that she can control objects with her mind, an ability she is said to possess because her mind is not being adequately worked. (Children, who can still believe that big tracts of their brains remain unexplored, relate to this theory.) With this magic power, she defeats her arch-enemy, the horrid head-mistress, Miss Trunchbull. Dahl delved into childhood in a way that posited struggle and conflict as the crux of things. “I have very strong... views on how a child has to fight its way through life and grow up to the age of, let’s say, twelve,” Dahl once said in an interview. “All their lives they’re being disciplined. When you’re born or when you’re one or two or three, you’re an uncivilized creature. And from that age, right up to twelve or fifteen, if you are going to become civilized... you’re going to have to be disciplined. Severely... And who does this disciplining?... It’s the parents... Although the child loves her mother and father, they are subconsciously the enemy. There’s a fine line, I think, between loving your parents deeply and resenting them.”
Children reading Dahl instinctively know that the thrashings and ignominy his young characters receive are symbols of the helplessness of childhood, and they love the fact that Dahl so openly takes up for them. In the meantime, adult readers get an idea of the sense of alienation, and indeed the anger, that children feel. These vicious subtexts are mercifully lightened by Quentin Blake’s delightful illustrations — their funny, loose, squiggly style soothed Dahl’s sharpness and highlighted his child-like humour. It is said that the savage aspects in Dahl’s works sometimes frightened Blake, but he grew to see Dahl as the visionary he was. Dahl had a razor-sharp idea of what his characters looked like, and felt that illustrations for children’s books were shamefully scant. He was chuffed to bits when Blake drew 100 illustrations for Matilda. Dahl and Blake fed children’s yearnings — for more vivid imagery, more secret ridicule of grumpy, insufferable grown-ups and more dreams of giddy revelry. With its new cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Penguin has failed to recognize that Dahl and Blake did not only want to indulge a child’s dreams and fantasies, they wanted to fuel them.
Adults have every right to take pleasure in children’s literature. But priorities can still be maintained. Dahl remains relevant, and his beautifully nuanced work still deserves discussion. But it is perhaps better when the covers of books are the kind that draw people to complex literature rather than the sort that entice adults towards books that are clearly meant for children. I, for one, care about a book the way I remember it — and I suspect I am not the only one.