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Innocence Lost: The "New" Charlie Cover

The following blog was written originally in 2014. When I considered including it in my new blog, I wanted to be sure it was still accurate. Sadly, it is. ~ JC

So the internet is all up in arms over Penguin's design for Roald Dahl's classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Penguin maintains that the cover was designed in an effort to, "look[s] at the children at the centre of the story, and highlight[s] the way Roald Dahl’s writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life, ready for Charlie’s debut amongst the adult titles in the Penguin Modern Classics series." In other words, the idea behind the cover is to give it more of an adult style so it matches with the other -- predominantly adult -- titles in their Modern Classics series. The problems with this are many, but I'm only going to touch on the few that hit my brain the instant I saw the cover.

1) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is NOT an Adult Book.

Don't get me wrong. I am SO happy Penguin saw the greatness in this book in such a way as to honor it with a place among their Modern Classics series. Other books in this series include 1984 by George Orwell, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. These are amazing titles and authors, and it's a great honor for Roald Dahl's beloved story to be included among them. My master's thesis was entirely centered around my belief that children's books can be as great a literary contribution to society as any Shakespeare or Hawthorne, so this elates me to no end.

The issue isn't that Penguin has included a children's book in its Classics series, it's that Penguin is trying to pretend it's NOT a children's book. Of course, this is erroneous at best, because... well... it IS a children's book. One hundred percent kid-approved. To emphasize this point, here are a few lines from the actual book:

“I've heard tell that what you imagine sometimes comes true."

"The snozberries taste like snozberries!”

"Rainbow drops - suck them and you can spit in six different colours.”

“Oh, my sainted aunt! Don't mention that disgusting stuff in front of me! Do you know what breakfast cereal is made of? It's made of all those little curly wooden shavings you find in pencil sharpeners!”

“Yippeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” And at the same time, his long bony body rose up out of the bed and his bowl of soup went flying into the face of Grandma Josephine, and in one fantastic leap, this old fellow of ninety-six and a half, who hadn’t been out of bed these last twenty years, jumped on to the floor and started doing a dance of victory in his pajamas.”

If these sound childish to you, that's because they're from a children's book. "But," you may argue, "there are many deep and even dark passages in there as well". I agree and if I ignored them I wouldn't be much of a literati would I? For contrast, here are a few of those:

“Whipped cream isn't whipped cream at all if it hasnt been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn't poached eggs unless it's been stolen in the dead of the night.”

“Everything in this room is edible. Even I'm edible. But, that would be called canibalism. It is looked down upon in most societies.”

These are only a couple of examples, of course, but they work to illustrate the point. We can see that the first plays on words in a way that a child would most likely not understand, and both are a bit dark to say the least. However we also must also note that even these passages are written in a childlike narrative voice because Roald Dahl meant it as a children's book. Even if adults CAN find deeper themes within, (and I maintain that this is definitely the case) creating a cover that alludes that the story is entirely adult-themed is ridiculous. As the author himself said of his work,

“I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn't be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage.” Roald Dahl

Books shouldn't be daunting? I'd say that cover certainly is!

2) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a Beloved Modern Classic BECAUSE it is a Children's Book

Adults love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because it reminds them of their childhood. As they will tell you, almost all of these adults read it for the first time as children. Children love the book, of course, because it's written for them. Neither of these fans would get what they loved about this story from the cover. In fact, it's raised an awful lot of fuss for this exact reason!

But you may say, "this isn't for fans of the book, it's for adults who have never read it before." In that case let's look at the two kinds of adults who fit into this category:

1) Those who know what the book is from movies and/or basic pop culture.

2) Those who don't know anything about it because they're simply not interested in knowing.

To be honest, Charlie is such an icon of kidlit I'd wager it would be difficult to find the latter subcategory anywhere. Still, for argument purposes let's assume they exist. One of these people is walking along in a bookstore, looking for something they will enjoy (which, we have established, is NOT kidlit), and they see this cover. Now, I'm not going to argue that my instant translation of this cover is the same as anyone else's but the general feel I have gotten from Facebook comments and in-person discussions is the same: this cover says that the story within is a drama about child pageants or some dark memoir written by a lady who went through horrible emotional and mental abuse as a child. The titles of Lolita and Valley of the Dolls have also been going around, and I have to agree with those as well. So this random bookstore customer who doesn't know the title sees this cover and thinks, "hey, that looks interesting", because maybe they like that sort of thing. They then either pick it up and read the back (like most sane people), or they just buy it. In the former instance this person would find soon enough that it's a children's book and put it back down, thus not buying it. In the latter instance they would take it home, begin to read it, then take it right back to the store, possibly in anger for being duped. In either case this person does NOT give the bookstore any business.

In the end, this cover only serves to confuse and frustrate pretty much everyone. And why? Because Penguin chose it as a Modern Classic based on its own merits... then decided those merits weren't good enough.

3) Different Themes Within the Story Could Be Used to Greater Effectiveness and More Validity

According to some critics, Penguin made this cover with the theme of the book in mind, which they state is "the loss of childhood innocence". This theme could really be put on just about any children's book ever conceived (except maybe The Wizard of Oz, though I'm sure there are those who would try), and I am a big proponent of freedom in literary criticism, so I won't argue against that point. What I WILL do is argue that there are other themes Penguin could have gone for instead, which could be more effective in marketing and more valid to the story.

Let's start with a short synopsis. I'm assuming most of you have read it (or seen one of the movies; I won't judge as I've done both), so this will be simple review. However I feel it is warranted due to the subject at hand, so please humor me.

Charlie is a very poor boy living with his washerwoman mother and four invalid grandparents in a tiny shack. The one thing he loves the most in the world is candy, but he hardly ever gets any, and when he does it's usually very small. One day, the mysterious owner of the local chocolate factory, Willie Wonka, sends out news that he will allow five, and only five, children into his factory to see its wonders. Those children will be chosen at random by way of a contest -- five golden tickets hidden inside Wonka's most popular chocolate bar. There's a flurry of excitement as the five are found: Veruka Salt, the spoiled, selfish daughter of a millionaire; Augustus Gloop, a German boy who never seems to stop eating; Violet Beauregarde, a girl obsessed with competition -- and gum; Mike Teevee, who you can probably guess cares for only one thing in the world -- television; and... Charlie. These five are given a fantastic tour through the factory with their parents, and one-by-one learn the hard way that their personalities aren't exactly the best: Violet blows up into a blueberry after eating gum that Willie Wonka tells her repeatedly not to chew, Augustus finds himself trapped inside -- then shot out of -- an exit pipe from the chocolate river because he can't stop himself from trying to drink the whole thing and falls in, Mike is zapped into a tiny version of himself because he can't control his excitement over the possibility of becoming television himself, even though Willie tells him they haven't tested it on people yet, and Veruka falls down a garbage hole after trying to steal a golden-egg laying chicken that Wonka tells her is not for sale. In the end the only one left is Charlie. Willie Wonka tells Charlie that he is the winner of another contest -- one nobody knew about -- and the prize is the factory itself. He then names Charlie his successor, and Charlie, Wonka and Grandpa go home in the great glass elevator to tell the family the good news (and destroy the roof while they're at it). The end.

Okay, so the initial obvious theme here is "don't be a douche". All of the other children are greedy and selfish and they pay for it not only by way of humiliation, but also losing the chance to be the next Willie Wonka. Dahl's theme of self-morality is obvious here, especially since in the book (unlike the original movie), Charlie does nothing wrong and is just happy to be there and experience such wonder.

This is a theme that adults don't tend to like, however, as it can be seen as condescending to those who are supposed to have already learned the basic lesson of being a decent human being. Telling someone not to be a douche isn't exactly a selling point, but it can certainly be used for a more valid cover design. How many villains have sold stories? Darth Vader, for one, has been a huge moneymaker. So show Violet being a selfish brat. Show Augustus with his mouth full of chocolate. Heck, make it into a "Seven Deadly Sins" style of imagery. This can be done both in a way adults will be drawn to, AND still in keeping with the obvious theme of the book.

Still, you may argue that adults don't want the obvious. We're pretty good at looking into things and finding far deeper meaning than sometimes is even considered by the author. (Mark Twain had a few things to say about that!) What if the goal of Penguin here is to show adult readers that there is more to this children's book than meets the eye? This is a perfectly acceptable goal as far as I'm concerned, but I believe they have gone about it all wrong.

I feel that one possible buried theme within Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is that of human companionship. Willie Wonka lives in a huge, wondrous factory... all alone. Of course there are the Oompa Loompas, but they're more like sentient pets than friends for Wonka (we won't discuss here the inherent racism that they could very easily represent). Wonka is extremely wealthy and successful... but he's also very lonely. Charlie on the other hand has nothing... except his family. He lives in a shack with five -- five -- adults who adore him. He is not lacking in love or companionship for certain! In the end, Wonka invites Charlie and his family to move into the factory as he teaches the boy everything he needs to know to run it. Why would he do that? (Other than the fact that the Buckets live in a shack, I mean.) Because he's lonely! One of my favorite quotes from the book is this:

“Mr. Wonka: "Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted." Charlie Bucket: "What happened?" Mr. Wonka: "He lived happily ever after.”

It's more than possible that Wonka isn't just speaking of Charlie here but of himself as well. Charlie got a chocolate factory and a bright future. Wonka... got a friend. This theme could also be incorporated into the cover in a more adult-style by simply showing Wonka standing starkly alone in front of his factory. This is only one example, of course. I'm sure Penguin has plenty of real artists who could do a far better job.

4) The Cover is Pretty Much Everything the Book is Not

Speaking of Penguin's artists, let's wrap this up by discussing the cover as it is, and its assumed theme. This theme of "childhood lost" isn't a unique one as I earlier pointed out, but it is special in that adults can perhaps relate to it better than some other themes within children's books. Alright, that is understood. Yet even working with this theme, and even adding in the darkness that Penguin mentions (which I won't dispute exists: the boat song is in the book, and Dahl was known to have written adult horror before he began his children's books), I still maintain that it could have been executed far better.

First and foremost, Charlie is not a girl. I'm all about transgender rights, but Charlie Bucket isn't trans. He is a cis boy. It's pretty simple that way. Yet this cover depicts a girl. Why? Why doesn't it depict the main character, or at least someone who could possibly be him? This image is very misleading, giving the impression that the main character is female when nothing could be further from the truth. If you want to depict the loss of innocence with dark tones, fine, but for the love of God do it with a boy so the cover is at least somewhat relevant to the actual story! Sure, depicting the loss of innocence for a boy may be more difficult but it's far from impossible. Soldiers come directly to mind. A dead-eyed boy in dirty combat gear perhaps? That's one of many scenarios which could be explored that, while still not completely relevant to the story within, would at least have some relevance to the main character.

Secondly, the book has no characters who could even match the girl on the cover in the first place. Some have mentioned she could be Veruka, but Veruka would never allow herself to become this automaton; however bratty she was, she was certainly self-aware and vibrant. The character on the cover depicts nobody from the actual story, nor any scene that happens in it. Sure, sure, I understand that Penguin is going for metaphor here but there's such a thing as too vague, especially for the general public. Include something relevant. Anything! Come on, Penguin, throw us a bone!

Third, and perhaps the most damning, is the blatant sexualization of the girl on the cover. Strike one: she's a little girl. Strike two: it's a children's book. Strike three: this assumes that adult readers are really only looking for one thing, which is pretty damn insulting.

Yes, I understand that the sexualization of this girl is what depicts the loss of childhood innocence. I'd have to be a total dolt not to know that, and I'm just above that particular mental classification, thank-you-very-much. Yet I can't help but wonder if Penguin had ulterior motives in using that particular brand of innocence lost. There are other ways to lose one's innocence. Heck, Penguin could have used some of the themes they maintain are in the book itself. (I know, novel idea.) But no, they went with the lowest common denominator, going so far as to sacrifice any actual relevance to the story in order to make the cover "sexy". And why?

Because it sells.

Penguin, you lost quite a bit of my admiration. That was a dick move.

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