Charlie and The Chocolate Factory: The Problem with Photo-Based Book Covers

Flicking through my Instagram feed on Wednesday, I stopped and stared for a long while at a photo of the new Penguin Modern Classics version of the cover of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.

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At first glance, the picture reminded me of the young girls on TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras. I was confused, wondering how something like that made its way into my feed, but then I noticed the large, grey lettering of the title, Roald Dahl’s name, the small, oval penguin logo in the bottom corner. I read the text Penguin included in the post, where they wrote “this design focuses on the children at the centre of the story and highlights the way Roald Dahl’s writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life.”

And since then, I’ve read more articles deconstructing the book cover and talking about the negative reactions of the internet. Readers have frequently compared the new cover to being more in-line with Lolita (a novel about a twelve-year-old who becomes sexually involved with her stepfather, to put it shortly, for those of you who haven’t read the classic story). In these articles, the phrase “light and dark aspects” of the novel seems to be making rounds, but that first part, about the design focusing on the children in the story, has not.

At least not (to my knowledge) by anyone except for the BBC, that is:

A spokeswoman for Penguin stressed that the new edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was “intended for an adult audience,” adding that the cover image was not intended to represent either of [the] female children featured in the story.

So Penguin, let us wrap our heads around this one, the design focuses on the children at the center of the story, and yet, it is not intended to represent any of the female children in the story?

Penguin has also denied that the child in the photo is being “sexualized,” another claim by many readers. Since the photo was originally taken by photographers Sofia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiello in 2008 for Numero magazine, I don’t doubt that the sexualization of the child in the photo wasn’t intended. However, it’s there none-the-less, whether Penguin wants to “see it” or not. It’s in the way the book designer cropped the photo, the bare knees and thighs and short skirts leaving little to the imagination (albeit, it’s mainly the mother’s knees we see). It’s even in the light pinks and oranges of their clothes, like cakes waiting to be eaten, the frills like a boa—which most people associate with sensuality, with lingerie and revealing costumes.

As a student studying book publishing, what I found most interesting was that this is a common problem with photo-based book covers. Where’s the relevance? As one bookseller, Ron Johns of the Falmouth Bookseller, put it, “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?”

Designers find stock photographs that seem to speak to them, and we, the readers, are at a loss as to why. I’ve picked up books in stores with women on the cover who don’t even have the same hair or eye color as the main characters. Why are we picking beautiful photographs and slapping them on covers, if they have no connection to the story? It seems lazy and ill-conceived. With purely graphic covers, it’s easier for readers to distinguish elements of the story—in this case, light and dark. With photos—photos of actual people whose features are not obscured in any way—themes seem to be less relevant. The person in the photo is tangible. They stick in the readers’s mind, and as we read the text, we start to imagine that the women in the book look like the women on the cover.

That shouldn’t be a surprise to publishers. It’s the same logic of why actors and actresses replace their literary counterparts on the covers of new editions of Twilight and other blockbusters—because when we read those books now, it’s nearly impossible not to see Kristen Stewart’s face when imagining Bella Swan.

If you’re wondering whether or not I’ll be picking up the book, I won’t. Not because I’m opposed to children being sexualized (which I am), but because I’m beginning to think that all of this talk—the articles, the hilarious but slightly nasty comments, even this blog post—is giving Penguin exactly what it wants. Whether or not it’s the cover we would have chosen means nothing at this point. People will buy it if only to have a copy of the book that sent the internet into fits of rage.

The old idiom, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” seems to take on new meaning with this version of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. This cover seems to say, this book is a darker-than-light, sexual story about wealthy children and their parents, something that doesn’t fit in with my childhood experiences reading Dahl’s book. And while Penguin has repeatedly mentioned that this new version is not for children (but for adults), they seem to have forgotten that today’s adults were yesterday’s children. Adults who are trying to hold onto their memories—not have them destroyed.

And okay, okay. Not everyone agrees about the whole sexualized child bit. And yes, I’m being kind of melodramatic. My childhood may have been destroyed, but, realistically, my neglectful parents had more to do with that than this book cover. My own fellow contributor, Amanda, told me that, to her, it seems more like a child playing dress up. Cotton candy, pink fluff. Even the fake eyelashes and pink lipstick, evident to me, weren’t to her (although she did admit she didn’t see the relevance between the story and the photo), proving that everyone has a different perspective.

So what’s yours? Do you hate it or love it? Or do you just wish everyone would shut up about it already?

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About Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor-in-Chief at The Poetics Project. She has a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and a passion for stories in all their forms. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.
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