When Penguin revealed the new cover for the Classics edition of Roald Dahl’s instantly recognisable children’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the response was, to say the least, not positive. The image of a heavily dolled up little girl looking uneasy as her mother looms overhead just out of shot evokes many unsettling and questionable parallels, none of which seem in any way connected to Dahl’s book.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, like much of Dahl’s work, is a surprisingly dark story. Essentially, it’s about the ways in which parents mess with their kids and the lasting results of being spoiled or mollycoddled. Bad things happen to the four children invited into Willy Wonka’s factory, things that are implied to be distressing and painful. As a young reader, it doesn’t quite dawn on you just how utterly wrong all of this is because it’s just too much fun to watch these brats get their comeuppance, so for Penguin to challenge adult reader expectations with a drastic cover change is somewhat understandable. This is, very clearly, a children’s novel being marketed to adults.
There are issues that come with the adult marketing of children’s work. For one thing, it opens the publishers up to accusations of elitism and false advertising, and leaves questions open for the potential reader. In this case, the novel has mass name recognition, regardless of the cover. If an adult were to buy a copy of the book, why this particular one, especially since the classic Quentin Blake illustrated versions remain a favourite? How would this edition even be marketed or shelved in a bookshop? Would it sit in the general fiction section or in the 9-12s where the rest of Dahl’s work sits? Even the adult covers of the Harry Potter books tend to be kept with the other middle grade fiction.
The juxtaposition of the whimsical extremely childlike title and the unsettling cover raises more questions than it answers. Previously part of a fashion shoot (and the awkwardness of that is in itself a topic for discussion), the image suggests ideas of sexualisation that are entirely at odds with the book. It’s a dark book but the darkness within isn’t that kind of darkness. There are enough awkward jokes about Willy Wonka being a paedophile without adding this fuel to the fire.
Whatever kind of post-childhood reassessment of the novel Penguin hopes to inspire with this cover, it will feel as muddled as the decision to use this unsettling and somewhat sexualised image. Comparisons to Lolita were many, another book that suffers from cover art that blatantly misses the point. I’m sure Penguins graphic art department are patting themselves on the back for making such a daring and edgy creative decision, but whether or not it appeals to the general reader is another matter entirely. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may be a dark book but it’s also a fun and wildly creative one for children. Appropriating that and making it into some pseudo-psychoanalytical exercise for adults feels cruel.