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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.


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 8th, 2014 10:51 am (UTC)
I don't personally like the new cover, but boy are you spot on with Point 2. I reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a couple of years back (I'm now in my thirties). I had exactly the memories you describe, constructed when it was read to me in childhood: oh, it's a lovely story about a whole bunch of kids going round a chocolate factory cos they found golden tickets, and the nicest kid 'wins'! When you're a child, it's a perfectly reasonable interpretation. When you're an adult, you actually realise the whole thing is distinctly harsh and even a bit creepy.

(After that, I kind of regretted buying a copy for an adult friend's birthday. She told me she'd never read the book in childhood, which I said was a tragedy and that it was a lovely story. She must now think I'm evil and deranged.)
Aug. 8th, 2014 11:50 am (UTC)
Thanks so much, Claire Read (and for saying who you are on Twitter)! :) I think I was even vaguely aware of the creepy element as a kid, but I had lots of adults telling me it was a 'lovely story' and that sort of softened my memories of it.

Louise @weezle just tweeted a few covers to me. They're very light and playful, and reflect more of what adults told me about the book that the actual book.

Aug. 8th, 2014 01:38 pm (UTC)
The left-most one is the one I had as a kid. I still think it's quite magical - a big machine going gloop!
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:14 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure if I would've gone for that one; I might not have liked how the machine's isolated on a dirty grey background. I didn't see the place in my head like a grey factory, more like a magical land (because of the chocolate river, edible grass and flowers, etc). But the colourful coil of machine-produced stuff looks intriguing, and the little boy and girl on the bottom right look vaguely Pauline Baynes-ish, which I would have liked.
Aug. 8th, 2014 07:23 pm (UTC)
I think the illustrator I was used to was Pat Marriott, better known as the Joan Aiken illustrator.
Aug. 8th, 2014 12:06 pm (UTC)
From Philip Ardagh. In my bearded opinion
I wasn't going to comment but, having been quoted by The Bookseller, I think I shall. My interpretation of the cover is that, in securing the golden ticket for their children, the other parents are trying to live their own dreams or continue their own 'success' through their children. The girl is the mini-me of the mother. I don't have problems with sexualisation or which character it represents or suchlike. I simply don't think that the cover reflects the tone of the book. Yes, the book has a dark side -- look what happens to them 'orrid kids -- but, unlike the splendid original Boy and a Bear in a Boat cover which perfectly reflects the style and content of the story itself, this cover is detached from the feel/texture of the story. If it were an entry in an art college competition for pictures inspired by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory then it shows some thinking... but as a genuine cover design? *Sighs* It has little if any merit. Despite all you've said, Sarah, I still hold it's b*ll*cks.
Aug. 8th, 2014 12:19 pm (UTC)
Re: From Philip Ardagh. In my bearded opinion
Thanks for leaving a note, mister! :) And a longer explanation than 'b*ll*cks', ha ha...

I'm still not sure if I like the cover, but I do think it's interesting that it's picked up on that dark side, when no one else has. And if they're making a cover for adults (whatever we think about that), it's an easier place - in terms of marketing - to show that dark side.

I have a confession to make: I didn't really like Quentin Blake's artwork as a child. I love it now, I think his energetic line is genius, but when I was a kid, I found it unfinished-looking and messy. I actually went through the whole book of George's Marvellous Medicine (or How to Poison Your Nan) and tidied up all the lines with gaps left in them, then coloured it.

So it seems strange to me when people get offended by seeing Dahl paired up with anyone other than Blake. It's interesting to get new interpretations of it, and particularly one that's SO different to anything else I've seen.
Aug. 8th, 2014 12:20 pm (UTC)
Re: From Philip Ardagh. In my bearded opinion
I wish I could find that old George's Marvellous Medicine, it'd be such a good laugh. I'm pretty sure my mum gave it away.
Aug. 8th, 2014 01:40 pm (UTC)
Re: From Philip Ardagh. In my bearded opinion
The main editions I had of Dahl were illustrated by someone other than QB; I too found it a bit of a leap to like his illos when I was younger.
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:10 pm (UTC)
Re: From Philip Ardagh. In my bearded opinion
Ah, it wasn't just me! :)
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:21 pm (UTC)
"I have a confession to make: I didn't really like Quentin Blake's artwork as a child. I love it now, I think his energetic line is genius, but when I was a kid, I found it unfinished-looking and messy. I actually went through the whole book of George's Marvellous Medicine (or How to Poison Your Nan) and tidied up all the lines with gaps left in them, then coloured it."

Ha! That's brilliant!

And, at the risk of replying "me too" to everything you say, I didn't think much of Quentin Blake's illustrations when I was a kid either. I didn't think he could draw: it's just a bunch of scribbles, right? My opinion has changed massively over time :)
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:10 pm (UTC)
That's what I thought! I would've wanted to take a closer look, seeing that image juxtaposed with such a familiar title.
Evie Manieri
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:16 pm (UTC)
Unsettling, works for me
"NOT Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator - that one gave me the heebie jeebies" Too true. So. Many. Nightmares. I know I'm in the minority, but I think this cover is a daring stroke of genius; even more so when I imagine it with the subtitle, "How Not to Raise Your Children." The deep hold this book had over me as a child came from its darkness, not from any cozy wish-fulfillment. Maybe that's why I love the image of the child as a vacant-eyed doll. After all, one of the darkest aspects of the book is the fact that the parents are clearly at fault for the failings of their children, but THE CHILDREN ARE PUNISHED ANYWAY. Because that's the way it works in real life.
Aug. 8th, 2014 04:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Unsettling, works for me
Those last two sentence are SO TRUE. You nailed it.
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:38 pm (UTC)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
love your piece, you have it right on all points! x
Aug. 8th, 2014 04:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Thank you!
Aug. 8th, 2014 04:19 pm (UTC)
Here's another blog post, against the cover, by writer Jo Cotterill: http://jocotterill.com/2014/08/08/my-problem-charlie-chocolate-factory-cover/

I left a note on her Facebook: I agree in that I don't think it's an appropriate cover for children. I don't think they'll get it, either, and yeah, some little girls might even find it appealing, for all the reasons we woudln't want them to. But as an adult book, we 'get' that she's an abused toy figure, and I like the way it challenges many adults' misremembering of a cosy, nice story.
Aug. 8th, 2014 04:47 pm (UTC)
Hey, Philip Ardagh just posted this in my Facebook, the whole picture 'taken by the photographers Sofia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiello for an editorial spread titled “Mommie Dearest”'. Thanks, Philip!

Aug. 8th, 2014 05:22 pm (UTC)
Great post
I really enjoyed this - I initially had a very anti feeling and on the whole I still don't like it, but this has made me think much more. I feel like it can be easy to forget to think about something that one takes against quickly - so thank you! I hadn't thought about this book in some time (I remember loathing the Glass Elevator too), and now I'm going to go back and give it another go!
Aug. 8th, 2014 05:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Great post
Sorry didn't mean to be anon there!
Aug. 8th, 2014 08:34 pm (UTC)
The first time I read this book, I read it in French and without Quentin Blake's illustrations. My impression was that it was enjoyable but sinister, and the scenes that stuck in my mind mind most were those about the girls. This cover captures my impression exactly. Still, I think it is problematic because with our cultural preconceptions and in conjunction with the title it makes the girl look like a sweet treat for someone called Charlie, which is creepy. (Viv)
Aug. 8th, 2014 08:35 pm (UTC)
I find the book problematic, too.
Aug. 8th, 2014 08:52 pm (UTC)
Ali Sparkes' one liner
I got confused so I stumbled away...
Aug. 9th, 2014 10:42 pm (UTC)
I like this cover
Hi Sarah, that's a great post. I've been astonished by the OTT negative reactions to this cover. I actually think it's great - sly and subversive in just the right way. Reminds me a lot of Tales of the Unexpected. Not sure if Dahl would have liked it, but he would have been amused by the moral outrage.
Sep. 16th, 2014 10:37 pm (UTC)
Re: I like this cover
Oo, I just spotted your blog response! Everyone go read it, it's a good 'un. :)
Aug. 12th, 2014 07:00 am (UTC)
Great post Sarah, gets to the point and is amusing too ( I love the book covers especially the gnome on Shine).

Personally I not a fan of the new CATCF cover, as it isn't a good fit with the story, although it isn't too far off the creepy undertones that fun through it.

However when I first saw the image on line, I thought it was marketing for the musical, I assumed they had a poster with each of the golden ticket winning children. Somehow being a theatre poster, It didn't seem creepy just camp, but isolated on the book over and cropped the way it is ( I don't find the full photo anywhere near as freaky) makes it seem more sinister.

Anyway, great post thanks.

Sally Poyton
Sue Hyams
Aug. 13th, 2014 07:27 am (UTC)
I don't think the cover does justice to the book; it certainly doesn't give us the heart of the story. The whole image actually tells us of the relationship between the mother and the child so it's a shame they didn't use it. Perhaps there would have been less fuss if there had been covers for each of the children involved. I know - money, money, money - but couldn't they have at least given us the option of Augustus Gloop?
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )


Sarah McIntyre

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