Sarah McIntyre (jabberworks) wrote,
Sarah McIntyre

charlie and the chocolate box covers

I'm seeing so much furore in book world over this new Penguin cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!

Of course, the illustrators immediately have to jump in, doing joke reboots of their own books. Here's my studio mate Gary Northfield, who started it off:

A lot of people hate this Penguin cover. Here's Penguin's response (and my short response) in The Bookseller article by Charlotte Eyre. But it raises a lot of interesting points. Why do people hate it?

1. Because it's not the 'original cover'. Why fix it when it ain't broke?

Here's a comment on The Telegraph article about it:

But what is 'the original' cover? A lot of people have been mentioning Quentin Blake, but the first time I read it, it wasn't a Blake cover or illustrations. I don't even remember the illustrator, just that it was much more dense, cross-hatched drawing. That's who I associate with the book.

2. Why detract from 'the whole childhood innocence of the storyline'?

Guys, I hate to break it to you, but Roald Dahl one was one sick puppy. And you know what? Your kids are, too. Not in an unnatural way, just in a way that they like seeing vengeance enacted on people who aren't nice. They don't always want clean, caring solutions to problems, they want to see other people GET WHAT THEY DESERVE, watch them squirm. I loved some of Dahl's books as a kid (NOT Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator - that one gave me the heebie jeebies) and I love them now. I was a Roald Dahl Funny Prize judge. But Dahl's stories have some very dark, often cruel themes, and people misbehave very badly, and get away with it.

You might have cosy, vague memories of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a story about a group of kids and their parents who get to venture into a wonderful, magical kingdom of sweets, presided over by a sort of Santa figure. Nope, it's not like that. Or that's not all of it. Think again: an eccentric inventor brings select children - mostly rich ones, because statistically they had a better chance of winning his competition - into his factory, cut off from the norms of society, police, medical workers, etc. He gradually picks them off, punishing the horrid children who have all become that way because their parents are equally vile. In the real world, his punishments would have killed them all, but they survive their various tortures, using strange forms of his own medicine, which in one case, involves stretching a shrunken child on something like a rack. In the end, it's the one poor kid left, who had a decent upbringing, and he gets to start the cycle all over again if he so wishes.

This is not a nice, cosy story. And I like that the new cover makes me remember this.

3. This sexualised image is totally inappropriate.

Well, I wouldn't go that far. This image isn't any more sexualised than the dolls you see being marketed to children every day in shops. And the children in the story are, in a way, dolls of their parents. They haven't been able to rise out of their parents' mean-ness, and everything's exacerbated by their new-found fame. But this cover does make the book something I wouldn't buy for a child as a present. I'd be worried they wouldn't see the irony in it. This book is aimed only at adults, and if a shop is going to stock it, they'd need to stock two books. Do they want to give it that much shelf space? That's a business question.

4. It's too vague: it doesn't show what's in the book.

This is actually my least favourite point. When designers get scared, they go for the most straightforward solutions to covers: stick the main characters on the cover. Do the obvious. When I talk with kids about book/comic design, I ask them what's the most important thing about their cover. They usually say that it reflect what's in the book. I tell them that this is partly right. But even more important, it's that their cover makes someone take the book off the shelf, open it to look inside, and check it out of the library or buy it. It has to zing, it has to engage, it has to stand out from the millions of books out there, it has to make people want to find out more. Lots of people are talking about this book, so on one level, it has succeeded. Would they buy it? This is yet to be seen. I'm half-tempted to buy it myself, as a sort of souvenir.

I was interested to see this posted on my Facebook feed, from Penguin US, a very, VERY literal rendition of the cover:

I'm not sure I like that. I think I would have liked it as a kid for its comics-bookish appearance, but as an adult, it feels like a sort of corporate mapping exercise. If we only get literal covers, we're going to miss out on some of the ethereal, can't-put-your-finger-on-it beauties, such as Dave Shelton's A Boy and a Bear in a Boat. That cover is incredibly brave and wonderful, but the US editors decided it would be safer and more marketable to go with the main characters on the front. Both are good, but I'm so glad the original cover happened. It's a curious wonder of design (by Ness Wood, working with Dave Shelton and David Fickling Books; Ness also designed Morris the Mankiest Monster and Jampires). Dave's original cover creates a mood, rather than giving you obvious information about the book, and this is what the Penguin cover sets out to do.

5. Why do we even have to put adult covers on children's books?

I'm not sure about this, that's a problem I've never really understood, why some adults don't like to be seen reading children's books. And why publishers are finding a market in that. Maybe some adults think all children's books are boringly safe and cosy, and they'd be wrong, but a lot of the covers might not even be reflecting what's inside, they're TOO sweet to be true. Books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are pretty dark, actually. But if there's money in selling books with overly sweet covers, overly adults covers... well, I want to see the stories get out there. It gives more work to designers, illustrators and photographers. If you don't like this cover, don't buy it. I suspect several people will have their nostalgia tweaked by hating this cover and go off and buy another version.

So do I like the cover? I'm not sure. And that's what I like about it, that it's making me think, and remember the darker aspects of the story. Children's books SHOULD make us think, and ask questions. And I want publishers to take risks. TAKE RISKS. Make people think, discuss, ask questions. Taking risks isn't the natural way of things in children's books, especially when good ideas have gone through the wringers of sales and marketing meetings. You wouldn't believe the sorts of discussions that go on in there. I stand up for books that aren't bland, books that make us think, and that means mistakes are inevitable. And a 'mistake' depends on who's talking. A commercial mistake? A moral mistake? A mistake of taste?

In The Bookseller article, it quotes the Penguin spokesperson saying:

"What has added to the upset stems from the way readers associate certain books with certain covers. Any deviation from the norm – in the form of a new cover – is an affront to their own experience of the book."

No. We're not clear.

Why would I want edgy stories to be lost in the fog of fluffy chocolate-box nostalgia? There are a lot of reasons I might not like this cover, and several reasons I do; we're not clear, and I'm glad about this.

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