Penguin has defended a controversial new cover for the Penguin Modern Classics version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, stressing the edition is aimed at adults and not children.
The image on the front cover depicts a doll-like young girl, wearing a pink fur coat and make-up, causing some authors to complain of sexualisation. Booksellers have given the edition a mixed reception, with some independents saying they will not stock it.
Helen Conford, publishing director at Penguin Press, said the cover is a deliberate move away from the Quentin Blake illustrations used for the children’s edition.
“It’s a completely different style and there is a fantasy element here,” she said, pointing out that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, like most of Dahl’s work, is quite adult in some ways. “We wanted something that spoke about the other qualities in the book… it’s a children’s story that also steps outside children’s and people aren’t used to seeing Dahl in that way.”
She also said any sexualisation “is not something I see”.
However, the cover has attracted derision from several authors, with Lucy Coats saying it raised her “feminist hackles”.
“My first reaction was that it was a cover for Lolita,” she told The Bookseller. “It is sexualized and has nothing to do with the book.”
Picture book author Giles Paley-Philips said the image was “ill-judged”, adding: “[There is] a lot of ill feeling about it, I think because it’s such a treasured book and a book which isn’t really a ‘crossover book’. People want it to remain as a children’s book.”
Sarah McIntyre had a more mixed response, telling The Bookseller that although the “sexualized image rings [warning] bells, that streak of cruelty is quite Dahl… It’s also interesting that the image is not based on the main character, it doesn’t need to be because Charlie… is an established book.”
Meanwhile on Twitter, Joanne Harris said: “Seriously, Penguin Books. Why not just get Rolf Harris to design the next one?”, while Philip Ardagh said: “I think it’s boll*cks.”
Some independent booksellers have expressed their dislike for the image, with two – Ron Johns of the Falmouth Bookseller and Frances Smith of Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books – saying they will not stock the new edition.
Johns said: “I don’t like it at all, it’s so postmodern it’s not even relevant to the story, and why would we sell two versions of the same book especially as one is so strange?”
Smith called the new cover "totally inappropriate" and said that there were many other editions of the novel to choose from. “I have no problem selling to adults from the children’s section and there are better, alternative versions,” she said. “I won’t bother stocking the new one.”
Sheila O'Reilly of Dulwich Books questioned whether the new edition will sell. “I cannot help thinking that image has been designed to generate publicity and we are sure are giving it that publicity, but will it sell copies? Hard to think it will,” she said.
However, Waterstones took a more moderate approach. Joseph Knobbs, classics buyer at the company, said: “Penguin’s defence of the jacket chimes with what I thought when I saw it – it’s a disquieting, arresting image but not one that I perceived to be sexualised. People are talking about a book on its 50th anniversary and that’s a good thing.”
According to Creative Review magazine, the image is a cropped version of a picture taken by the photographers Sofia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiello that originally appeared in a 2008 Numero magazine as part of a retro-styled fashion story. The magazine is in favour of the image used in this context. "While the candy-colours hint at the sickly-sweetness of Willy Wonka's confection, of more significance is the unnerving quality of the image which touches on one of the main undercurrents in the book: the relationship between children and their parents, and what can happen when fame and fortune enter into their lives."
It added: "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."
The Penguin Modern Classic edition is part of celebrations this year to mark 50 years since Charlie… was first released. Penguin is also publishing adouble-cover paperback with a souvenir golden ticket and a full-colour edition illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake.