Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the most important children's book of all time. Not his best, and not my favourite but definitely the most important. It's the book's fiftieth anniversary this year so I thought I'd take the opportunity to explain why it's so damn IMPORTANT, and while I’m at it showcase some of the brilliant interpretations of the book by the artists who illustrated it in the sixties: Faith Jaques, Michel Simeon and first up Joseph Schindelman.
But possibly we're jumping the gun a little, in the UK at least. Although the book was first published in 1964, it was for a surprisingly long time 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. Astonishing.
Charlie 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 I suspect 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.'
Dahl ignored her of course and children loved him for it. The librarians and keepers of 'things that are suitable for impressionable minds' did not. The debate rumbled on into the 70s when writers including Ursula K. Le Guin attacked him for a story 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””
Roald’s frustration with this kind of attitude 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. In inimitable style 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 version we are really celebrating this year is the one published by Knopf of New York with illustrations by Joseph Schindelman. The experienced ad man wasn't Dahl's first choice – that would have been, drum roll please …. Maurice Sendak. Dahl had admired the young New York artist’s work on Robert Graves' The Big Green Book. Sadly he was too busy writing that other very IMPORTANT children's book, 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. 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.'
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.'
I think this gets to the heart of why Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is so important – it 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.
I've got a French edition to show you soon and will explain more about how the story developed.