Charlie and the Chocolate Factory illustrated by Joseph Schindelman

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was first released in 1964, but for a surprisingly long time it was only available in the US. Despite a successful career as a writer of short stories and as a screenwriter Dahl struggled to get any of his children’s books published in the UK until the end of 1967.

The book sold very well in the States – 600,000 copies by 1968 – and initially received massive praise. But the UK was at that time the world leader in children’s publishing, and Dahl craved success at home. But one by one it was turned down by every major UK children’s publisher. Dahl put this down to the ‘priggish obtuse stuffiness’ of the industry.

But perhaps it was also to do with something his US editor Virginie Fowler had originally worried about: a perceived adult tone and general rudeness.

‘This whole image of smelling stinking garbage makes for a crude image, which can be done perhaps in an adult commentary on the modern world and written in another form. But in a fairy tale based on the eating of sweets, one is a bit revolted and unnecessarily too!… fish heads and cabbage have no place in a chocolate factory.’

Debate about the book’s suitability intensified in the 70s, when the author came under fire for its colonialist stereotyping of the Oompa Loompas. There was also a more general disquiet about the suitability of his writing for children. Renowned author Ursula K. Le Guin, attacked him for writing a story which she believed pandered to the worst instincts of children. Dahl’s biographer Donald Sturrock writes:

‘Her conclusion was not that the book had made a wonderful connection with the child’s inner world, but that, under its influence, her “usually amiable” daughter became “quite nasty””

Dahl’s frustration only made him dig his heels in and hustle. At one stage he considered going it alone and having the books published cheaply in Czechoslovakia, allowing him to sell in bulk at a low price. Self-publishing and foreign printing might have taken a while to catch on, but in his thinking Dahl was light years ahead of the game.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was finally picked up by an established British publisher – Allen and Unwin, who had J.R.R. Tolkein on their books. Sir Stanley Unwin approached Dahl after his daughter had been loaned a copy of James and the Giant Peach by Roald’s daughter Lucy. Dahl put on his best poker face, and convinced them they were in the middle of a non-existent bidding war. As a result he won himself a larger share of the profits and also forced through his desire for the books to be printed abroad and at a low price.

The original US edition, published by Knopf of New York came with illustrations by Joseph Schindelman. The experienced ad man wasn’t Dahl’s first choice – that would have been, drum roll please …. Maurice Sendak. It could have been the perfect pairing, as biographer Jeremy Treglown points out.

‘His work has much in common with Dahl’s – particularly its roots in northern European tradition and its keen sympathy with the crueller sides of a child’s imagination. Their never-realised partnership is one of the more tantalising might-have-beens of children’s literature.’

Dahl had admired the young New York artist’s work on Robert Graves’ The Big Green Book. But he was too busy writing Where the Wild Things Are. Plus he demanded a larger cut of the profits – and as we’ve seen, Dahl didn’t give in easily on money matters.

That said Schindelman produced some of the best images of any of the editions of Charlie, particularly his depiction of Willy Wonka who comes across as more than a little sinister. Would you let you children anywhere near this man’s factory?

The New Yorker recently asked Schindelman about his work on Charlie. He got the impression that Dahl had really wanted a British artist to work on the book, something that appears to have influenced his approach, adopting a style that owed much to Victorian illustration.

‘For a children’s book, it was a little unusual. I even started doing some sketches in the margins as I was reading it. It had a somewhat Dickensian feeling. That was primarily why I used the pen and ink. It felt sort of old English in a way—of that period.’

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a book at a crossroads; one that shared the Victorian mind-set of Dickens and Hilaire Belloc, but pointed the way forwards for children’s books over the next half century, challenging the accepted norms of how we look at what a ‘book for children’ could be. Charlie worried adults and enraptured children.


4 thoughts on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory illustrated by Joseph Schindelman

  1. The version with the Schindelman illustrations is the one I read as a kid — I think it’s the best one, more in tune with the spirit of the story than the others. (Sendak would have been good too… but would he have been dark and subtle enough? In any case, he was busy making a masterpiece!)


  2. that surprises me that another author like le guin would have objected to this book – wonder how she feels about that today. and what an idea to have this paired with sendak. wow. great post.


  3. Although I love all the Blake re-illustrations of the Dahl books he wrote before their collaboration, I wonder what Dahl would have thought of the post-1990 Blake illustrations if he had lived to see them. Although I think Dahl might have loved them, on the other hand he might have wanted each book to have a particular feel, and he might have been against the standardising of illustrations that his literary estate commissioned. I wonder to what extent the re-illustrated versions constitute disrespect to the original first editions, as Blake’s illustrations for Dahl’s five Unwin titles (plus Danny and Minpins) were all done posthumously.

    I am wondering if there can be a special collection of all the alternative illustrations that were done for the Dahl books that didn’t originally have Quentin Blake illustrations. This would allow people to know how the book and illustrations felt like back in the day. Annotated editions of the Dahl children’s books might have been the best place to do so, particularly in the case of the Charlie stories, as there are differences between editions and print runs. I have been keen to read the original version of the Oompa-Loompa chapters, but have been reluctant to spend hundreds of dollars on a pre-1970s copy of the first Charlie story.


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