Charlie at 50 / Roald Dahl

Charlie and Lolita

I’m a big fan of the new Penguin Classics cover for the 50th anniversary adult edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But judging by the reaction on twitter and the media at large, I may well be in a minority of one here.

The illustrator Sarah McIntyre has already put up a good defence of it here, although she doesn’t wholeheartedly endorse the image. There’ve been accusations of child sexualisation – Joanne Harris suggested Rolf Harris do the next one (a flippant tweet that becomes more disturbing the more I think about it). The author Patrick Ness even ranked it as a publishing disaster to rank alongside the Hitler Diaries. Hmmm.

For the most part it’s been seen as a betrayal of people’s fond memories of an innocent childhood classic – and by extension an insult to the original artist Quentin Blake. Well, I’ve banged on about this often enough, but Charlie is no piece of fluffy childhood nostalgia, and Quentin Blake was not the original illustrator.

I’ve got nothing against Blake’s work – his illustrations for Charlie are probably the best of those that he produced for Dahl’s earlier books. But they came long after the controversy of the early publication had been forgotten. There are no black Oompa Loompas, and cries that the book was unhealthy trash (from the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin no less) had long since died away. Charlie entered the cannon of much cherished children’s literature alongside the Edwardian children’s books it echoed.

Like those cautionary tales, the book has a very dark heart. Charlie aside, the entire cast are a massive bunch of wrong ‘uns. Wonka is a devious, unpredictable, sadistic manipulator. The children are products of their selfish parents and even sweet Grandpa Joe, on a recent reading, struck me as being rather too eager to push his grandson into the dangerous world of Willy Wonka and claim his dubious rewards.

And I think this is where the new cover should be applauded. It’s stoked a debate that’s been hidden so brilliantly by Quentin Blake’s witty illustrations. I believe this great writer should be open to multiple interpretations – Jon Klassen’s Dirty Beasts say, or David Tazzyman’s Twits or maybe Sarah McIntyre’s James and the Giant Peach.

And here’s the thing, the reaction might have been overwhelmingly negative but it has succeeded in framing this fascinating novel in an adult context. They’re inviting readers to think about its characters and attitudes beyond their misty memories. And after all shouldn’t any great classic be open to multiple interpretations, even if they do make their adult readers uncomfortable?

As for the image itself. I’m not really getting the ‘sexualised’ Lolita thing, rather it’s a smart piece of shorthand for childhood innocence subverted by adults. It also fits in to the aesthetic of the rest of the Penguin Classics range, and aligns it with some of Dahl’s work for adults like Kiss Kiss and Tales of the Unexpected. And if you’re still not convinced take a look at some of the other shots from the fashion shoot that this was originally used for. It could have been a lot worse.

3 thoughts on “Charlie and Lolita

  1. A lot of people blogging about this today, this is a very informative piece. While I believe your right in saying Blake’s illustrations came long after the controversies,there is something wrong about this cover and it does look like the appropriate cover to Lolita! By and large children read this book and the cover should match that readership IMO.

    • Not sure if I agree. It’s an adult edition, to be shelved with other adult books and I don’t think many parents will be choosing this for their kids over a QB edition. And if they did? I can’t see the harm really, it’s pretty mild IMO. Maybe it’ll get children who’re into Bratz dolls into reading?!

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