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Fudge Mountains and ‘Creepy’ Covers: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Turns 50

Read Sunday, 31 Aug 2014

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of the world’s most beloved children’s books.

This weekend, as part of the anniversary celebrations, the Guardian published a ‘lost chapter’ of Charlie online, featuring the demise of two characters (who never made it to the final book) on a vanilla fudge mountain. In this version, Augustus Gloop is named Augustus Pottle, the Oompa Loompas are simply ‘workers’, and there are eight children who enter the factory with Charlie, rather than the final four.

Quentin Blake's new illustration for the 'lost' chapter of *Charlie*.
Quentin Blake’s new illustration for the ‘lost’ chapter of *Charlie*.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of a much-loved classic. But is this contemporary trend for posthumously publishing material by classic authors necessarily a good thing? In recent years, we’ve seen the release of early novels by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote; critical responses have suggested that they were the work of evolving writers finding their voices. In other words, there were good reasons to leave them unpublished.

‘As a writer I can’t think of anything worse than an early draft being published,’ says Emily Gale, author of books for children (The Eliza Bloom Diaries) and young adults (Steal My Sunshine) and a bookseller at Readings. ‘It’s like lining up a chef’s previously burnt dinners or hearing a singer’s bum notes during rehearsal. On the other hand, it does usefully show that not even a celebrated author like Dahl got it right the first time, and that writing evolves over time and with input from different sources, which is something Dahl said when he was talking to children about how to write.’

Andrew Wilkins, chair of the Children’s Laureate Alliance and director of independent children’s publishing house WilkinsFarago, believes posthumous publications like this complement rather than reflect on a writer’s career; they stand apart from their accepted body of work, rather than joining (or muddying) it. ‘Rather like extras on DVDs, an adult audience likes this kind of material, and probably has the level of sophistication necessary to accept the unpolished early material for what it is — a curio and evidence of the author’s way of working. As long as it’s clear what the work is, I don’t see the harm.’

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Publisher Penguin marked Charlie’s anniversary last month by publishing an adult version of the book, featuring a made-up little blonde girl outfitted in clouds of confectionery-pink, staring glassy-eyed from the vantage point of her mother’s lap.

‘This new image for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looks at the children at the centre of the story, and highlights the way Roald Dahl’s writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life,’ said a publisher’s statement.

The adult readers the publisher hopes to intrigue have not, in general, embraced the cover.
‘That Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover is one of the biggest publishing mistakes ever. Hitler’s Diaries bad,’ said Patrick Ness. On Twitter, Joanne Harris said: ‘Seriously, Penguin Books. Why not just get Rolf Harris to design the next one?’

‘The designers went for the wrong sort of darkness,’ wrote Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker. ‘Dahl’s young characters always have agency; their magic powers or ingenious schemes — what their adult overlords consider misbehaviour — always save the day. The Modern Classics cover has not a whiff of this validation of childish imagination; instead, it seems to imply a deviant adult audience.’

Others have been annoyed by the very concept of repackaging Charlie for adult readers. Picture book author Giles Paley-Philips told The Bookseller that there is ‘a lot of ill feeling about it, I think because it’s such a treasured book and a book which isn’t really a ‘crossover book’. People want it to remain as a children’s book.’

Australian author Simmone Howell’s latest book, Girl Defective, won best YA cover at this year’s ABA Design Awards. She says the repackaging is ‘lame’, but that’s not the main issue for her. ‘I don’t know why adults are so scared to be seen reading books generally read by a younger audience,’ she says. ‘I think the repackaging for adults just widens the gap and reinforces the idea that children’s books are “less than” literature (and the implication there is that children are “less than” adults).’

Emily Gale agrees; she says that this attitude from publishers needs to change. ‘There are plenty of people who agree with the Martin Amis school of thought, that you’d only write — or, presumably, read — a children’s book as an adult if you’d lost the full use of your brain. The children’s jacket is often cheaper, so I wonder whose brain really needs checking.’

Thuy On, books editor of The Big Issue (and a huge Roald Dahl fan) says she still sees Charlie firmly as a ‘children’s book’, without the crossover appeal of a Harry Potter. ‘I don’t think many people will read it as adults – unless, like me — they are reliving it with a child who’s being introduced to it for the first time,’ she says. ‘So I think it’s unnecessary and a bit of a cynical marketing tool to package it with an adult cover.’

Yet the design has its defenders, too. Tony Ross, a former art director at District-based Mage Publishers who teaches a class on jacket design for the D.C. Public Library, told the Washington Post that the Modern Classics cover is ‘provocative to exactly the right degree’; he believes Dahl would have liked it.

Andrew Wilkins is in favour of the edition, too. ‘The repackaging just enables adults to more easily give themselves permission to buy the book for themselves; it doesn’t change the nature of the book, the primary market for which is still kids. In that respect, the creepy cover makes sense. It’s an adult cover, so adults will buy it. Not all kids’ books could handle this kind of makeover, but Dahl’s can, mainly due to his dark humour.’

Despite the fact that the girl is outfitted just as Quentin Blake drew Veruca Salt, the publisher has said that the image is not meant to represent any of the characters.

Wheeler Kids is the Wheeler Centre’s new event series especially for the small person in your life. We have four events this September school holidays: a comic workshop, Andy Griffiths, a book-making workshop with Alison Lester, and Philosophy Club: Being Good.

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