There is a controversy lighting the book blogosphere on fire this month. When Penguin Books published the cover to their new British edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory many people reacted with confusion or anger. Released for the 50th anniversary, the cover depicts a dolled up young girl sitting with a woman who is presumably her mother. Before I go on, take a look at the cover and decide for yourself. What do you think?
The first article I read about the cover (this one from the BBC) points out that one of the largest complaints about the image is that it depicts a highly sexualized young girl. A Journal Star article about the cover points out that it screams Toddlers and Tiaras or JonBenet Ramsey. I think we can all agree that these are not good things.
Now I didn’t find the cover to be overly sexualized, but I did find it to be creepy. It looked like some sort of Stepford Children meets the Uncanny Valley situation to me. Initially, I believed it was Verucha Salt pictured and I couldn’t figure out why they would choose her, or any female, on the cover of a book belonging to the male characters, Charlie and Willy Wonka. When I read that the cover girl did not represent Miss Salt or the other main female character, Violet Beauregarde, I became even more surprised and confused by Penguin’s choice. Why make a cover that has nothing to do with the book at all? Why make the cover to a well-loved children’s book weird and creepy?
I started to wonder if nostalgia was clouding mine and the general populations’ judgment. Was the classic cover illustrated by Quentin Blake so great? Was the cover of my childhood copy, with its giant chocolate bar and odd depiction of a small Willy Wonka sitting on Charlie’s arm any less creepy? Upon further examination, at the very least these covers capture what is happening in the book. There is chocolate. There is Charlie and there is Willy Wonka. In that regard, they were leaps and bounds above Penguin’s new cover. Blake’s illustrations capture the whimsy of Wonka and his factory and the original illustrator Joseph Schindelman at least lets you know what you are in for.
If I learned anything from the Bushwick show covering The Phantom Tollbooth, I found that even if I had read a book repeatedly during childhood, I might love it more or in different ways if I reread it as an adult. Maybe I would like or at least understand this new cover if I revisited Roald Dahl’s text. So I picked up my childhood copy and spent an evening trying to make sense of the whole thing.
While keeping this statement from Penguin’s press release in mind, “This new image for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looks at the children at the center of the story, and highlights the way Roald Dahl’s writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life” I took to the pages to see if my adult mind could reconcile these ideas in a new, grown-up way.
So how did it go? Did I gain a new appreciation for the cover? In short, no. My childhood memories of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are intact and I don’t have a new found appreciation for the odd new cover choice. Yes; all the kids, except for Charlie Bucket, are brats that are mostly undeterred by their parents’ attempts at discipline. What’s so dark about bratty kids and bad parents? In the end, all of them leave the factory with their lifetime supply of chocolate. Sure, Violet is now purple, but at least she’s not a blueberry. That problem was fixed in the juicing room. The rest are changed visually, but don’t seem worse for the wear. They have lifetime supplies of chocolate bars after all!
I haven’t forgotten about the issue of either the slavery or indentured servitude of the Oompa Loompas. To me, that’s the darkest part of the book that mostly goes unmentioned. As a kid, I thought Wonka was nice for taking in these strange little dudes that must be endangered. I also thought they were so lucky to have jobs working in a candy factory. Hello! Dream job! Now though, questions of their well-being and pay and lack of advancement opportunities come to mind. Why doesn’t Wonka give his factory to the head Loompa? He must not have much faith in their leadership abilities since he gives it to a little kid with zero work experience who lacks even an elementary school degree. Only recently did I read that the original Oompa Loompas were members of a pygmy tribe from Africa that Wonka took from their homeland, imported to the factory in large crates and paid in chocolate. Yeah… It’s not surprising that they altered this in future printings at the request of the NAACP.
Skirting the issue of slavery that has since been removed from the book, what am I missing here? What dark parts of the story warrant the creepy cover? Someone please fill me in, so I can appreciate this new cover.