There has been a bit of a kerfuffle over the cover art chosen by Penguin to illustrate the Roald Dahl novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The two main objections: it is upsetting and inappropriate for a chldren’s book and it is not representative of the contents of the book. Most commentators concluded that they would never give the book to a child. Despite the common use of children as a shield covering the adult person’s inability to accept the problematic facts of life, let’s look at the cover, in fact the covers of the entire Penguin re-release of the works of Roald Dahl, and let’s consider the works themselves.
Let’s start by defining our terms, but in this case each reader should consider the question for themselves: What is a children’s book?
Here’s the cover:
Knowing the basic themes of Dahl’s novel, I consider this cover brilliant. First, although Penguin contends the girl in the picture is neither Veronica nor Veruca, look carefully: the girl is sitting next to a woman who is cut off in the picture, presumably her mother. Does the girl remind you of JonBenét Patricia Ramsey? Here’s photo to remind you:
The child is made-up to look like a seductive woman and she is color-coordinated with her mother. The idea of a mother using her daughter as a prop to perhaps make up for the deficiencies in her own life is pretty close to the didactic themes in Dahl’s novel. The “punishments” encountered at the Chocolate Factory might have seemed fantastical in a the land of Willy Wonka, sugar coated, if you will, but were they? And are those same actions outside of the Chocolate Factory in danger of more horrific consequences? Ask JonBenet.
This theme of an adult “playing” with her daughter as if the daughter were a doll isn’t obvious if you only see the Charle and the Chocolate Factory cover. Let’s see a few of the other covers from this 50th anniversary release by Penguin:
Notice: all the covers (there are more) show dolls in fancy dress. I remember my mother collecting these types of dolls ostensibly representing dolls from all over the world (but actually all made in Japan). However, the cover to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in accordance to the theme of the novel, flips the image from being dolls dressed up as people to being the opposite: people dressed up as dolls.
By the way, I find it very difficult to see anything that the knee-jerk puritan would find off-putting in the photo. Perhaps if we look at the full photo. Interestingly, it still appears to be real people (and not actual dolls) but don’t they look like dolls? The poses look unnatural; the parts of the bodies look like they’re Photoshopped … and that shadow is strikingly inhuman (in a Roald Dahl sort of way).
So what is children’s literature? I just read Roald Dahl’s acclaimed early work, The BFG (Big Friendly Giant). Now this is a novel for the kiddies. It’s about a small orphan girl who is snatched from her bed in the middle of the night (the witching hour) by a giant and whisked away to Giant Land where she is in danger of being a tasty snack for one of the not-so-friendly giants. It seems that these other giants roam the globe at night and nosh on tasty human beans: did you know that human beans from Greece are considered indigestible by any giant but that Panama human beans have a pleasant hatty flavor?
So what does the child learn from this Dahl novel: giants grab children from their beds at night and eat them, spitting out the bones.
Now despite a successful British incursion into Giant Land, saving future youths from becoming mere snacks, the prevailing image is that a nasty, smelly, mean-spirited, hungry giant may come at night, grab them through the window, and pop them in their mouth like Cheetos.
And all these gasping censors of Penguin cover art are not even concerned that Roald Dahl is, if anything, a rather dark author and, despite the apparent association of his writing with children, he is not going to be selected to write the screenplay for Mary Poppins II (yes, he’s dead but in fiction you never know). I also suspect that many who are displeased with the new covers haven’t read the books, or at least not since they were kids themselves.
Back in the ’50s I went to the movies with my parents to see a Walt Disney real life story (I think it was Perri). I remember my folks talking about the movie and my father pointing out that there is death inserted into every Disney film. The obvious one at that time was Bambi … the observation has stuck with me through the years.
Then at university we studied children’s literature and it was quite revealing. First, much of what we know consider children’s literature was not written or collected for children. Have you read all the stories in Grimm’s collections? Andersen’s? There’s a lot of scary stuff in those stories involving chopping and chomping and things that grab you in the night. How about those fire-breathing dragons that burn up villages and toast little boys; is that gnarly old lady in the broken-down house on the next street over a survivor from a medieval witch hunt? Why do they call it an earwig?
The world is a scary place and authors such as Roald Dahl are not about to write safe, uncontroversial fiction. I can say the same thing about Penguin and their new book covers for the works of Roald Dahl. Good show!
The witching hour, somebody had once whispered to her, was a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up was in a deep deep sleep, and all the dark things came out from hiding and had the world to themselves.
Just think, you’re sound asleep dreaming of French pastry and Michelle Williams (or Fabio) while Karl Rove is in the back alley looking for dead rats and Rush Limbaugh is contemplating digging a new home in a landfill in Secaucus. It’s interesting that witches and giants and trolls have become such quaint fictional characters now that the right-wing has taken over the business of disseminating fear and loathing.