Wednesday, August 13, 2014

People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

People are once again outraged over a book cover. (You might remember the kerfuffle over the romanticized cover of Flowers in the Attic or the chicklit-esque Bell Jar.)

This time it's Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that has readers reacting viscerally over graphic design. The new cover, part of the Penguin Modern Classics series, will debut for sale  in September.

Penguin Modern Classics edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Cue the outrage.

Following the cover reveal by Penguin, criticism began to appear swiftly on social media. To say people were appalled would be an understatement. The words "Lolita-esque" and "worst cover ever" appeared frequently. Many questioned how Penguin could do this to a beloved children's classic. Others offered their services to the graphics department, who clearly must not know what they're doing.

Typical responses. (I wonder if they're aware that Dahl wouldn't let the book be filmed again in his lifetime because he was upset that it had been made to seem too sweet?)

They're missing the point. A few of them, in fact. The first is: this cover design is not meant to be shelved in the children's section. It's meant to stand alongside other Penguin Modern Classics—and it's pretty cool that Dahl's book was chosen to be, according to Penguin's description of the line, one of "the most exciting, groundbreaking and inspiring works of the last 100 years."

I think the cover does a swell job of blending in with the others. (Here's a handy collage I've made so you can judge for yourself.)

Examples of the style of the Penguin Modern Classics series.

The other thing people seem to be overlooking is just how dark and strange Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is beneath the candy-coated surface. From the Dickensian-level poverty and hunger that open the book, to the profane and sadistic Wonka ("Burp, you silly ass, burp"), it challenges traditonal children's lit in every way. As the story progresses, nasty children (the products of even nastier parents) are dispatched in creatively fiendish ways befitting a horror villain.

Part of the charm of Dahl is how he imbues the ordinary with a creepy magic. Even breakfast: "Whipped cream isn't whipped cream at all if it hasn't been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn't poached eggs unless it's been stolen in the dead of night."

And don't forget that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been sanitized. The original publication had the black-skinned Oompa Loompas hailing "from the very deepest and darkest part of the jungle where no white man had ever been before." The original descriptions were changed decades ago, along with the illustrations that depicted them as Pygmy jungle savages.

The reaction people are having to this cover tells me that Penguin has done its job. "Who would tart up a child like that?" is what some are asking, and the answer is: people like Veruca Salt's parents. The reaction we're seeing is the reaction Dahl wanted to evoke with his awful children and their self-absorbed families. They should horrify people.

Penguin has defended the cover, as it should. I hope it sells well to people who still buy and read classics. And to those who like their fiction a little on the depraved side, well, this edition will fit nicely with Dahl's adult titles like Switch Bitch and My Uncle Oswald.
Distinctly adult titles by Roald Dahl. (Click photos for more info.)

For more on outrage over book covers:

People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of The Bell Jar

People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of Flowers in the Attic  

People Are Freaking Out About Morrissey's Autobiography Being a Penguin Classic

What do you think? Weigh in below. 


  1. Is that JonBenét Ramsey?! It sure isn't Veruca Salt.

    I agree that the Gene Wilder movie version is treacly and not as nasty as Dahl originally wrote it. Too many people have never read the book and only know Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. I'm the first to remind anyone that Dahl's kids' books are *not nice*. But that cover just plain sucks. I tend to hate all modern graphic design anyway. It's all photography manipulation these days. Whatever happened to illustration art? Oh dont tget me started. [...sigh...] If the cover design has to be provocative I'd rather see Veruca stomping on a pile of eggs or throwing one of the chickens at her father. BTW, where is Mr. Salt on that cover? Who is that female mannequin behind the ersatz Veruca? Mrs Gloop?

  2. I thought it was JonBenet Ramsey too and I agree wholeheartedly with John, the cover sucks!

  3. I am 50/50. I just don't like the cover, it doesn't matter to me what book it is for. I am thrilled that this book was chosen as a classic though and I should finally reread it.

  4. I'm with you completely Kelly - though I wish I liked the OSWALD cover as much as the CHARLIE because I love that book (which of course is much more overtly adult and is, inevotably, in fact much more juvenile) - thanks for bringing together the other covers as I think that makes the point extremely clearly.

  5. I'm with John and Peggy. But that doesn't mean that I believe Penguin doesn't have the right to create any cover they like for the books they publish. I love Penguin books so this wouldn't stop me buying any of their wares. I just shrug my shoulders. But I have to say, it IS an oddly disturbing cover. And maybe that's the point. My immediate reaction was: what does this have to do with the book? But then, I've never read it either.