In the past week Penguin has released the new cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a truly classic children’s classic, by Roald Dahl. And by George, one never thought the adult community might get into such an upheaval about a children’s book, but it appears they have.
As a literateur myself, I am quite familiar with the Penguin Modern Classics collection, and have long sought a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which has a gorgeous, modern cover. I’ve always quite liked what the cover artists at Penguin have come up with. This is not to say all the covers are my cup of tea, I certainly have my favourites and least favourites but never have a found one particularly offensive the way many have found that of Charlie in the past few days.
BBC, the Telegraph, and the Bookseller are all reporting what is essentially the same article about the angry reaction from the public and even some authors to the Modern Classics Charlie cover. Many are using adjectives like “creepy,” (okay, at first glance, sort of) “grotesque” (certainly not, be nice to that little girl!) and ” inappropriately sexualized” (really?! You can see more leg on the consent-aged woman next to her than anywhere on the child herself!) Many feel this is making ruination of a children’s book by making it more adult, and see no reason to change it from one of the many other “classic” traditional sketch-type cover art already being printed. Some booksellers have taken such offense to it that they’ve chosen to not stock the book, though the may sell other Modern Classics titles.
Despite all that garish pink (a la Dolores Umbridge, anyone?), one cannot deny that this cover is far more adult, far darker, and of course, more modern. Many find it a strange choice. A weird, creepy choice, that given the briefest of glances doesn’t seem to be keeping with the theme of the book whatsoever. But it’s not any of that at all. It’s not a strange choice, it’s a bold choice. And I love it.
There are really three things to consider in this light controversy (if one can call it that, Penguin’s going to publish the book with that cover anyway, so why keep complaining?)
What I think lots of folks aren’t up to speed with here is that we live in an age where it’s now fairly socially acceptable for adults to be reading YA, or even children’s books. If you haven’t read The Fault In Our Stars, I understand that you might not be grasping this concept, but if you have, stop trying to deny you read a book that is both geared towards and consequently held something short of holy by many 15-year-old girls across (at least) America. Many a classic meant for children such as the works of Roald Dahl, are still considered classics by book lovers today, and they read them openly. Sure, you don’t see stock brokers toting copies of The B.F.G. with them on their morning commute, but many folks see the literary merit to James and the Giant Peach, and value it accordingly.
My point here is that with the Modern Classics collection, Penguin is marketing classics to a new age of readers: a new ageless age of readers, perhaps. We live in a time where if you’re forty and want to purchase a copy of Charlie you can, and that’s fine, no one belittles you for it. However, you may want a copy with something a bit more mature than a lanky kid with a chocolate bar in his hand on the cover, because as an adult reading Charlie, you’re getting more out of the story than a juvenile might. The BBC published a great piece about the darkness of Roald Dahl’s works, which those who find this new cover too dark might find interesting. Specifically about James and the Giant Peach, but applying this overarching concept to all Dahl’s work, it reads:
“‘There’s the isolated central child who is then propelled into a fantastical landscape inside the peach,’ says Donald Sturrock, whose authorised biography of Dahl - Storyteller - has just been published in paperback. What follows is a child taking revenge against adults.”
Looking at Charlie specifically, all the children (save for the main character, perhaps) are naughty, greedy, and unkind to each other and to the grown-ups around them. And all of them receive “diabolical revenges” in the story: including Violet Beauregarde swelling into an enormous blueberry and Veruca Salt being ravaged by squirrels in the middle of the factory tour. (Spoilers, sweetie.) Dahl’s points about how these children in the end get what they deserve, but in the most unnerving of fashions isn’t exactly… light. See the rest of the BBC article for other “grotesque” mentions in Dahl’s work such as bags of crocodile tongues, women who pull of their skin to reveal disgusting creatures beneath who want to kill the world’s children, kids being beaten repetitively, and misogyny.
Now speaking of Violet Beauregarde, when she’s inflated like a blueberry, Wonka has her rolled off by an Oompa-Loompa to the Juicing Room. At the end of the novel, she is seen looking still a great shade of blue, but back to her normal size. As readers, we are not informed of how Violet is set back to her original size nor who set her right (though we must presume it was the seemingly docile Ooma-Loompas.)
If you want to insinuate about creepy sexualization, look no further than the actual text, where a terrified small girl is taken away by strange creatures and something happens to her that the audience does not get to see. And this all happens in the JUICING ROOM, no less. Sure Violet may have been a greedy brat who may have gotten what was coming to her, but we never learn what happens when she leaves the tour with the Oompa-Loompas. The first thing I think of when I think of how to deflate something is to puncture it… which the “creepy sexualiztion on the Modern Classics cover”-mongerers can make of what they will given this context. Those thoughts make me more uncomfortable than the little girl in pink next to her mother. And remember this is an image pulled from an already-published fashion magazine where high fashion ideas seem to get crazier, brighter (and bigger, just look at that hairstyle!) every day. The young girl on the cover is not a character from the book: she is a symbol of a thematic element in the story: she is a spoiled child in an outlandish outfit. What happens to these spoiled children becomes a fairly large part of the story, and as it progresses, the reader begins to feel these children deserve it. I personally am more concerned about the “creepy” violent, and “grotesque” things that happen to the children and their parents in the story than I am about this girl on the Penguin cover. She’s a symbol of childhood overindulgence, not sex.
And if you want more “creepy”: Veruca Salt is deemed a “bad nut” by the trained squirrels sorting them, and unceremoniously tossed into the garbage chute. We don’t know what happens to her before her parents meet the same fate trying to rescue her. (If the cover-hating-lust-mongerers want to infer sexualization here, I’m sure the “bad nut” references and the fact that Veruca is accosted by TRAINED SQUIRRELS can find something to play with.)
Stopping to think about it (which so many rarely do these days,) you’ll be hard-pressed to find a children’s book written by an adult that does not have some semblance of an adult theme in it. Children’s books are written for children, and are often read by adults: whether on their own accord, or they themselves reading them to their children. Roald Dahl’s books contain darker, more adult themes, and given this inherent quality of his text, it makes sense that if Penguin is trying to market this book as a classic to adult readers, they are fully within their rights to produce a book with a darker adult cover. Penguin Modern Classics are a higher-end collection, and likely to be purchased by those who are above the reading level of the original Charlie demographic: adults. Adults who likely already own a copy of the book with a different cover. This book doesn’t scare children (though maybe it could in other ways) in the sense that it is not like Nabakov’s Lolita: that child on the front of Charlie isn’t in any danger, and there’s nothing in the story to outwardly suggest such. Charlie is a book of confectionary wonderment, and a young boy with nothing who wins a fabulous opportunity and shares it with his grandfather. However, it’s also about Charlie seeing that Wonka isn’t the greatest person who has some strange fetishes, and Charlie meeting many greedy, spoiled children, raised by terrible adults, who meet vicious ends periodically throughout the story. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a story about children, but when picked apart, is not necessarily a children’s story. The Penguin Modern Classics cover reflects that. If you don’t like the cover, buy a copy with a different one, but remember we all need stories: adults are people too.