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Eleanor Cameron vs. Roald Dahl
October 15, 2009 5:38 PM   Subscribe

From October 1972 to October 1973 a controversy over Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory simmered in the pages of The Horn Book. It began with an article, "McLuhan, Youth, and Literature", by Eleanor Cameron, author of the Mushroom Planet series for children and of The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books. Spread out over the October, December, and February issues, it tied the ideas of Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Massage) to the confection of Charlie, calling it "one of the most tasteless books ever written for children":
"The more I think about Charlie and the character of Willy Wonka and his factory, the more I am reminded of McLuhan’s coolness, the basic nature of his observations, and the kinds of things that excite him. Certainly there are several interesting parallels between the point of view of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and McLuhan’s 'theatrical view of experience as a production or stunt,' as well as his enthusiastic conviction that every ill of mankind can easily be solved by subservience to the senses."
What followed was a knock-down, drag-out, letter-writing brouhaha, refereed by Horn Book editor Paul Heins, with librarians, parents, teachers, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Roald Dahl himself joining in, and it was one of the main causes of the book's revision that year.

The whole saga:

October 6, 1972: Roald Dahl hears of the impending publication of Cameron's article, and writes to Paul Heins.

Eleanor Cameron's article appears, in three parts: October, December, and February.

February 1973: An anonymous reader protests the first part of Cameron's article; Paul Heins is aghast. The Horn Book prints Dahl's response. The first raft of letters include a report of "spirited fifth and sixth graders respond[ing] with considerable heat and light" to the idea of "the death of the book."

April 1973: Paul Heins points out that much of the controversy is at critical cross purposes and provides "an attempt to clarify the situation — to sort out the different kinds of premises on which the various arguments are based." Eleanor Cameron returns, and writes not only about the sad situation of the Oompa-Loompas' "role as conveniences and devices to be used for Wonka’s purposes," but also of the unsatisfying nature of Charlie's fate. More letters; this time with Ursula K. Le Guin throwing herself in Cameron's camp.

June and August 1973: The letters continue:October 1973: The last word, from Doris Bass, at Dahl's publisher Knopf, on the revisions to Charlie that were partly inspired by the Horn Book imbroglio.
posted by ocherdraco (68 comments total) 93 users marked this as a favorite

 
previously
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:40 PM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


mccarty.tim: "previously"

I don't care.

This is a fantastic post.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:54 PM on October 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


What I object to in Charlie is its phony presentation of poverty and its phony humor, which is based on punishment with overtones of sadism; its hypocrisy which is epitomized in its moral stuck like a marshmallow in a lump of fudge — that TV is horrible and hateful and time-wasting and that children should read good books instead, when in fact the book itself is like nothing so much as one of the more specious television shows. It reminds me of Cecil B. De Mille’s Biblical spectaculars, with plenty of blood and orgies and tortures to titillate the masses, while a prophet, for the sake of the religious section of the audience, stands on the edge of the crowd crying, “In the name of the Lord, thou shalt sin no more!”

Children's literature is childish.
posted by DU at 6:03 PM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm kinda confused here. Which of these many, many links should I be clicking on to figure out what the controversy was actually about? From this post, I've gathered that somebody wrote an article that compared the book to the writings of some guy, and that got a lot of people angry, but I still don't know why.
posted by ErWenn at 6:04 PM on October 15, 2009 [12 favorites]


Dahl on Cameron: she goes on to announce that Charlie is “one of the most tasteless books ever written for children.” She says a lot of other very nasty things about it, too, and the implication here has to be that I also am a tasteless and nasty person.

The irony being, of course, that while Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a work of genius with very few parallels in the history of children's literature, by many accounts (eg.) Dahl was a fairly tasteless and nasty person.

Excellent post.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:05 PM on October 15, 2009 [7 favorites]


(Also, Eleanor Cameron's own Mushroom Planet series sounds pretty awesome too.)
posted by DU at 6:05 PM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Gah. ErWenn, the words "The whole saga" after the jump should have linked to this page. Start there.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:12 PM on October 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Partly what's interesting about this is that it's just pretty hard, today, to imagine many people objecting to a book that caused so many children to want to spend their time reading books. Anti-Harry Potter fundamentalist Christians aside, perhaps. Maybe the bar has been lowered.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:17 PM on October 15, 2009


Partly what's interesting about this is that it's just pretty hard, today, to imagine many people objecting to a book that caused so many children to want to spend their time reading books. Anti-Harry Potter fundamentalist Christians aside, perhaps. Maybe the bar has been lowered.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:17 PM on October 15 [+] [!]


Yeah, I can't imagine people these days getting upset over a story where a wealthy white guy enslaves a population of African pygmies and pays them in cacao beans. (Click the "revisions" link)
posted by Ndwright at 6:26 PM on October 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


(Also, Eleanor Cameron's own Mushroom Planet series sounds pretty awesome too.)

Yeah, they were my favorite books in about the 4th grade. I think my elementary school library had the whole series.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:31 PM on October 15, 2009


All right all right! But Cameron's criticisms are mainly much more esoteric. Not disputing Dahl's deeply dodgy views on race though, as I mentioned before.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:32 PM on October 15, 2009


Yeah, I can't imagine people these days getting upset over a story where a wealthy white guy enslaves a population of African pygmies and pays them in cacao beans.

Unless it's one of the things involved in the revision (and I don't believe it is, I read it before 1973), they were offered the chance to relocate to his factory from a miserable existence, that cacao was their favorite thing, and the factory is depicted as being rather paradisical for them in both relative and absolute terms. But I have to admit, in light of the actuality of slavery -- and a wretchedly unfortunate similarity to the lies of slavery's apologists, it's an exceedingly dodgy fable, a thing which did not occur to me as a kid.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:55 PM on October 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


Wow, I originally read the version where the Oompa Loompas were pygmies that Wonka had saved from being eaten by wild animals. I loved that book.
posted by mecran01 at 6:56 PM on October 15, 2009


OMG - Eleanor Cameron! In the mid-60s, my eldest sister broke her hip in a traffic accident and was laid up in bed for weeks. My father was teaching part-time at Cal State Fullerton at the time in the English department, and word got around that one of his daughters had been in this terrible accident and was in a lower body cast, bored out of her skull.

He came home with several books -- the Mushroom Planet series, the Redwood Cove series, By The Great Horn Spoon!, and a book about two white kids who move to Down Under and meet an aboriginal child (I wish I could remember more), a book about Japanese mythology and another about Greek mythology -- my memory is that the last three books were by the same female author (she wrote in her author's blurb about climbing Fujiyama in tennis shoes, to the surprise of several Japanese soldiers who were also hiking to the summit).

I really wish I could remember the name of that last author, because I think she was the person who taught with my dad and contacted her author friends (including Cameron) and got the authors to autograph the books with personal messages to my sister.

Anyway -- I haven't thought of those books in years, but just seeing the covers again -- especially this one, which gave me the willies when I was small-- brought back memories (incomplete as they may be). I'm hoping those books are still in my dad's garage in Fullerton!
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 7:04 PM on October 15, 2009


By coincidence, I pulled Dahl's autobiography, "Boy," off the shelf yesterday. Well, partial autobiography; it centers on his childhood and ends with his first job, in East Africa. I was flipping through, so this is from memory, but he went to work for Shell and begged them for a post in Africa because of his romantic (or perhaps colonialist) vision of the continent. He lived in Africa for several years and learned Swahili--I'm sure that his next autobiography, "Going Solo," deals with this in more detail. I am inclined to see "wealthy white guy enslaves a population of African pygmies and pays them in cacao beans" as a self-satire rather than as an endorsement of empire.

And as for "phony humor, which is based on punishment with overtones of sadism," goodness, I wish the reviewer had had any idea of what Dahl's schooldays were like, including, per Wikipedia,

"The Great Mouse Plot of 1924:
By the age of seven, Roald was attending Llandaff Cathedral School in the Welsh city of Cardiff. He and his friends had a grudge against the local sweet-shop owner, Mrs. Pratchett, a sour elderly widow who gave no thought to hygiene. They played a prank on her by putting a dead mouse in a gobstopper jar, and they were caned by the school headmaster as a punishment, whilst Mrs. Pratchett watched on in laughter."
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:18 PM on October 15, 2009


Overthinking a plate of chocolate?
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:24 PM on October 15, 2009


Cameron seems to take McLuhan to represent the position that print is on its way out. I never got that from McLuhan, but since I mostly couldn't understand him, he may have said such a thing. I'd thought he only wanted print to no longer be the only medium to be taken seriously. Does anyone even think about McLuhan any more? I mean anyone not on metafilter.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:24 PM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Relevant essay on MetaFilter's Own Dahl Expert site.
posted by tellurian at 7:28 PM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Excellent post - Now I've made my way through it it's a fascinating bit of lit history. I had no idea about the earlier version of the Oompa-Loompas, though I tend to agree with the first letter in the letters link where the writer states that that is really the only point Eleanor makes that isn't overstated (or later defended on purely anecdotal grounds), and without having read the unrevised version it's hard to say exactly how questionable taste it was in. Sure it does seem off, but so does Huck Finn's use of the N* word when it's just described as such.

Le Guin's letter of support is disappointing, too - it's one thing to have a literary preference, but that kind of stentorian 'proper books always have one foot in the real and the morally didactic' approach strikes me as a joyless enshacklement, and I can only respond "My dear old trout, go boil your head."
posted by Sparx at 7:39 PM on October 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think the original film is better than the original novel. Or at least more interesting, since it's a biblical allegory, which I gather that the book is not.
posted by empath at 7:40 PM on October 15, 2009


tellurian, I came across that while I was putting together the post—I had no idea it was a mefite's site!
posted by ocherdraco at 7:54 PM on October 15, 2009


It's stuff like this that's made me give up on taste-makers, critics and experts.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:05 PM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Le Guin's letter of support is disappointing, too - it's one thing to have a literary preference, but that kind of stentorian 'proper books always have one foot in the real and the morally didactic' approach strikes me as a joyless enshacklement

I love Le Guin as an author but she is a terrible snob when it comes to other people's writing; she reminds me of Flannery O'Connor in this respect (O'Connor is a superior literary critic however, but she is a tremendous snob).

Dahl's books like Charlie (in terms of morality and tone he covers quite a large range actually) remind me of fairy tales, with their skewed and twisted moralities of grotesque and disproportionate punishments and gross material rewards, and the kinds of numinous depths of dark wonderment and spectacle beneath. The magical factory is a wonderful archetype as deep and enticing as any enchanted forest - I don't know it's been done as well before or since. Cameron's essays seem to me to take a very dull and superficial measure of the book, which continues to stand the test of time.
posted by nanojath at 8:31 PM on October 15, 2009 [9 favorites]


By coincidence I just ordered a used copy of this book to read to my children. I went with used because the only new copies I could find have the Quentin Blake illustrations. I love Quentin Blake but I wanted the same Joseph Schindelman illustrations I remembered from my own childhood copy (since lost or destroyed). I spent some time trying to decide between the pre-1973 black pygmy Oompa-Loompa edition and the post-1973 white hippy Oompa-Loompa edition. This was tougher, but I opted for the latter again primarily because it's the version I remember.

I loved this book, and I bet my kids will too.
posted by Songdog at 8:42 PM on October 15, 2009


Dahl's books like Charlie (in terms of morality and tone he covers quite a large range actually) remind me of fairy tales, with their skewed and twisted moralities of grotesque and disproportionate punishments and gross material rewards, and the kinds of numinous depths of dark wonderment and spectacle beneath.

A fine summary, I think. Dahl appeals to kids because, I think, children live with fairly black and white morality, and I think Dahl does a better job of being inside kids' heads. That may be why someo f the anti-Dahlists loathe him so muchl he's much more in contact with the reality of a lot of the child's-eye view (wierd, unpredictable adult behaviour and rules, simple moral plays, and so on), whereas they want a kind of Bowdlerised view of childhood to prevail.
posted by rodgerd at 8:59 PM on October 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Dahl's books like Charlie (in terms of morality and tone he covers quite a large range actually) remind me of fairy tales, with their skewed and twisted moralities of grotesque and disproportionate punishments and gross material rewards, and the kinds of numinous depths of dark wonderment and spectacle beneath.

"Charlie" is overtly a celebration of the Cautionary Tale, not only in the four that comprise its several sub-plots, but also their reiteration in the songs of the Oompa Loompas which follow each one; these seem to deliberately evoke Hillaire Belloc in particular.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:07 PM on October 15, 2009


Ursula LeGuin has some nerve. She complains about her 11 year-old's favorite book, and says she thinks she turns nasty from reading it.
From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?? Maybe her daughter is reading some of Dahl's creepy horror books on the sly.
posted by eye of newt at 9:35 PM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


In the last version of the book the Oompa-Loompas didn't belong to any specific race. I had the black version and was somewhat taken aback to hear my fifth grade teacher reading from the white one (late 70's). Sometime before this, he had been reading an Armenian fairy tale to us and misread "donkey" as "monkey". He continued to read, when donkey came up again he read it correctly, but then told us he meant "monkey"....when donkey made far more sense in the context of the story. Because of this, I thought he had changed the race of the O-L's of his own accord (he was black)....until I looked at a copy in the library and discovered the other version.

On reading his children's stories as an adult, my impression of Dahl is that he didn't like women that much.
posted by brujita at 9:59 PM on October 15, 2009


I used to read Charlie and dream about the fudgemallow delights. I recently had a Cadbury Dairy Milk bar imported from Europe and it captured exactly what I thought Wonka chocolate should taste like. I've only been looking for it for 20 years.

I'm coming to realize Dahl was a much bigger influence on my childhood than previously thought.
posted by Brainy at 10:12 PM on October 15, 2009


A little more supporting information would be great for a FPP. :P

Great post!
posted by zerobyproxy at 10:15 PM on October 15, 2009


Overthinking a plate of chocolate?
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:24 PM on October 15


no. i think it's more ike Overthinking a plate of cocoa beans :)
posted by liza at 10:18 PM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


As someone who, as a kid, loved both Roald Dahl and Eleanor Cameron (man, I ADORED the Mushroom Planet), I found this really fascinating. A few years ago, I read Ursula Nordstrom's book "Dear Genius" which consists of letters written during the time she was editor on Charlotte's Web, Harriet the Spy, Where the Wild Things Are, and many other books we consider classics today. I was amazed to learn how many of those books were despised (especially Harriet! too subversive!) by the kidlit elite of the day -- especially since they're pretty universally praised today. Anyway, I recommend Nordstrom's book to anyone who's interested in children's literature -- she was instrumental in shepherding a lot of great children's books, and her letters talk about a lot of controversies like this one.

I had never read about this particular dustup, though! A really interesting read.
posted by OolooKitty at 10:24 PM on October 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I read Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet about the time when it was published. I loved it! Read it a couple of times. By the time the Dahl novel came out I had moved on to The Sot-Weed Factor and City of Night, so I never read the story about Willie Wonka. I did read Someone Like You though, and really wanted to read the never-finished Claud's Dog. Anyway, much as I enjoyed Cameron's book, I was really disappointed by the Horn Book articles. There is no coherent argument there. And no connection between Willie and McLuhan. And Dahl is right to read this as a personal attack. Good grief! I am always sorry when someone whose work I have enjoyed writes something horrible and petty.
(But this was a really great post.)
posted by CCBC at 12:03 AM on October 16, 2009


Oh my god, the Mushroom Planet books. I totally missed the reference to them the first time I visited this thread. I was just thinking about them two days ago, in particular the part where Peabody comes home to realize all his notes were written in the planet's language and it's all just chicken scratches. Thank you for pointing the way to this series of books I couldn't identify and sparing me an AskMe question.
posted by Brainy at 12:32 AM on October 16, 2009


Before Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964 Roald Dahl pared down his cast of characters. Last to go was Miranda Piker and her chapter has appeared only once — in mirror script. Here, for the first time, we publish her comeuppance the right way round.
posted by hubs at 12:47 AM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, thanks for the link hubs.

Reminds me quite a bit of Pig, actually.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:59 AM on October 16, 2009


Freudian Wonka
posted by kersplunk at 3:55 AM on October 16, 2009


"In what is either a masterpiece of subtext or a startling coincidence, the stages of arrested development represented by the first four holders of the golden tickets correspond directly with the stages in Freud's theory of psychosexual development (early oral, late oral, anal, and phallic)."
posted by kersplunk at 3:57 AM on October 16, 2009


Nice quote catch, kersplunk. Looks like someone's overthinking a box of chocolates there.
posted by Spatch at 5:22 AM on October 16, 2009


So this is how people had flame wars before (ready access to) Usenet?
posted by The Bellman at 6:37 AM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Children's literature is childish.

And children have questionable taste, to say the least. And a child's questionable tastes will taint the adult's sense what is good and bad, by way of nostalgia and longing for the past. In short, kids ruin everything.

The first time I heard about the Oompa-Loompas originally being African pygmies was when I was wearing a bright orange shirt with an "Ompa-Lumpa" on it (shoddy labeling by the t-shirt company) on my way into a music fest. A teenage girl mentioned that they were originally black slaves, and my sense of reality bent a bit. Having only read the revised edition and having seen Gene Wilder as Willie Wonka, I had thought that Roald Dahl was alway a nice and polite man, providing morality tales for the naughty children of the world. Only later I read more of his work, and realized he had a fantastic sense of humor for children and adults.

That orange Oompa-Loompa shirt also marked me as someone who should be in possession of Ecstasy, as some dazed older man asked me for E later that day, while I was sitting in the grass, not doing much of anything at the time. I really liked that shirt.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:44 AM on October 16, 2009


Not much to say except great post. It's amazing to see the glacial pace of debates in the pre-Internet age.
posted by Shepherd at 6:51 AM on October 16, 2009


Haven't read any of this yet except half of Cameron's first article (and god will she ever even begin to approach a distant foreshadowing of a point?) but I have to prematurely weigh in on why I think certain kinds of adults hate Roald Dahl.

I remember reading Dahl as a kid, and he and John Bellairs were the only authors that managed to write kids books that were actually scary, as opposed to containing all the semiotic markers you know you're supposed to recognize as "scary" but without being actually scary. Terry Pratchett wrote that "children love justice, because they're innocent, while adults prefer mercy, because they know they're guilty too." Dahl loved justice, and justice is scary sometimes. The kids in Charlie get what they deserved, even (and perhaps especially) when it's nasty. And if you read Dahl's adult writing, it's pretty clear that he was fully committed to the idea of justice, regardless of audience. An awful lot of adults find his tone and view very offputting, because he's not just writing a morality tale. He's indicting you.

And actually, the way Wonka relents at the end of Charlie and awards Charlie the prize even though he broke the rules never sat well with me as a kid. It seemed like a cop-out.

On reading his children's stories as an adult, my impression of Dahl is that he didn't like women that much.

I get the impression Dahl didn't like anyone that much.
posted by rusty at 6:52 AM on October 16, 2009 [9 favorites]


That's it? She almost never mentions Charlie again after part 1, and never says anything substantive about why she hates it so much. That was kind of disappointing. I was hoping for an argument or a critique that I could at least intelligently argue against, but she's got nothing. She just didn't like it. She sounds like she doesn't know very much abut children, but beyond that I got nothing.
posted by rusty at 7:09 AM on October 16, 2009


im confused... isnt this a work of FICTION?? isnt the purpose of a good book to inspire thought and conversation? so then, this book succeeded. does every book that contains a poor person need to present it in a true and just light? why is making it silly and humorous so offensive? fiction folks. dahl never said it was a work of nonfiction, you know with everlasting gobstoppers and rivers of chocolate and great glass elevators. sheesh.
get. a. grip.
posted by stackmonster at 7:20 AM on October 16, 2009


And actually, the way Wonka relents at the end of Charlie and awards Charlie the prize even though he broke the rules never sat well with me as a kid. It seemed like a cop-out.


I honestly thought that was one of the best changes made to the original material. If you'll remember Charlie offered his Everlasting Gobstopper back to Mr. Wonka as means of apology for breaking the rules. I though giving him the factory because he managed not to break the rules was just like showing up and not breaking anything which is the least you could do. Offering apology without prompting for a mistake is a far more mature behavior. Very Christian.

It's one of the rare instances where I think the movie did a better job than the original book. I've read the versions of the book (with black pygmies and with white hippies) and seen both movies. Of the lot I'll take the original movie hands down over the rest.
posted by inthe80s at 7:25 AM on October 16, 2009


im confused... isnt this a work of FICTION?? isnt the purpose of a good book to inspire thought and conversation?

You've asked a really deep and complex question. I could write an entire book that just parsed your question, leaving answers for a later volume.

For instance, what does it mean to discuss "the purpose of a good book"? There's no such thing as a stand-alone purpose. A purpose has to be somebody's purpose. Often, the person who created the object had one purpose in mind. ("I wrote this book because...") that may conflict with the purposes of various readers ("I read this book because...").

Personally, my reasons for reading any book have little do do with wanting my thoughts or conversations to be inspired. (Actually, I love to discuss books, but I rarely seem to find people to talk to about the books I like, so I don't have that expectation.) I read for sensation. I don't want to think about Dahl's message (if he has one). I want to feel the chocolate river running through my fingertips and I want to taste the everlasting gobstoppers.

I don't believe we can meaningfully discuss THE purpose of fiction, because fiction has many purposes to many people. Yet that doesn't stop people from having constant meaningLESS conversations about the purpose of fiction.

(I wish people would leave the word "purpose" out of literary discussions, because it's often used in a bewilderingly fuzzy way. I would rather they talked about why authors write books and why readers read books. Why do people like certain books? What thoughts and sensations do they get from them?)

Actually, the conversations aren't meaningless. They are just filled with hidden assumptions and agendas. I suspect that when people talk about the purpose of fiction, they mean something like "What I like about fiction" or "What I want other people to like about fiction" or "How I want fiction to be used."

I think the subject of morality in fiction is fascinating. Most people talk about "immoral books" as if it's a cut-and-dry subject. There may be arguments about whether a specific book is moral, but there's rarely an argument about what it could mean for a book to be immoral.

Does it mean...?

- That based on textual analysis we can deduce that the author is immoral?
- Does it mean that the main character is immoral?
- Does it mean that the author has created a world with a perverted moral system?
If so, why is THAT immoral? Can't a fictional world have a different moral system than our world? Are all novels really allegories?
- Does it mean that the book leaves a bad taste in the reader's mouth?
- Does it mean that the message of the book is immoral? Do books HAVE messages? All books?
- Does it mean that the book sets up an inconsistent ethical system?
- Does it mean that they bad guys get away with it? (Should they never get away with it in books, even if they do in real life)?
- Does it mean that by reading the book we might become immoral?
- Does it mean that we can't empathize with the main characters because they act in morally repugnant ways?

With childrens' books the debate gets even muddier, because few people are willing to allow childrens' books to be read for pure pleasure. They expect childrens' books to be lessons. Or they assume children will take all books as lessons.
posted by grumblebee at 8:11 AM on October 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


stackmonster: "isnt the purpose of a good book to inspire thought and conversation? so then, this book succeeded."

this is a silly argument. the purpose of a good book is not to inspire thought and conversation. the purpose of a book, good or otherwise, is whatever the author wants it to be. what a reader gets from reading is a compromise between what they want and what the author has provided, and whether a book is "good" or not is always a subjective value assigned to how the book has negotiated that compromise with a given reader.

in the context of children's literature, there's a good deal more to consider than simply whether the book is inspirational of thought and conversation. Mein Kompf has inspired much thought and conversation, but you wouldn't read it to 3rd graders.

that said, Eleanor Cameron is a silly person, Roald Dahl has a history of racism (the insensitivity of which seems to have leaked into the first version of the book), and Ursula K. LeGuinn is an admirable, though completely boring person.

consider me totally shocked that the original version of the book had african pygmies as the oompa loompas, working for cacao beans. much as I think Ms. Cameron's articles are foolish and absurd, that bit there is something I'm glad was revised.
posted by shmegegge at 8:22 AM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Seconding "Dear Genius" as a fabulous insight into kidlit publishing. One of the most fascinating things I've ever read.
posted by marginaliana at 8:34 AM on October 16, 2009


Terry Pratchett wrote that "children love justice, because they're innocent, while adults prefer mercy, because they know they're guilty too." (rusty)

That's a great quote, so I started looking to see if I could find the context. But I haven't found any connection to Pratchett (rusty, if you have a Pratchett source, I'd love to see it). What I did find was a very similar quote, attributed to G.K. Chesterton:
Children are innocent and love justice while most adults are wicked and prefer mercy.
Still trying to find the original source (which can be maddeningly impossible when there are thousands of "good quotes" sites which never cite any sources, just repeat themselves over and over again, it seems that most of them are drawing from a really interesting essay by J.R.R. Tolkien called "On Fairy-Stories."* On page 12 in the pdf of that essay, which is also reprinted in his book Tree and Leaf, he quotes Chesterton:
Chesterton once remarked that the children in whose company he saw Maeterlinck's Blue Bird were dissatisfied “because it did not end with a Day of Judgement, and it was not revealed to the hero and the heroine that the Dog had been faithful and the Cat faithless.” “For children,” he says, “are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”
From there, with the reference to Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird (a play about a girl called Mytyl and her brother Tyltyl seeking happiness, represented by The Blue Bird of Happiness, aided by the good fairy Bérylune), I was led to the original source itself: a rather fascinating little essay by Chesterton called "On Household Gods and Goblins" (collected in his book The Coloured Lands) which opens with the paragraph Tolkien quoted, and goes on to discuss the wild and terrifying nature of elemental domesticity:
This is especially true of the sort of house represented by the country cottage. It is only in theory that the things are petty and prosaic; a man realistically experiencing them will feel them to be things big and baffling and involving a heavy battle with nature. When we read about cabbages or cauliflowers in the papers, and especially the comic papers, we learn to think of them as commonplace. But if a man of any imagination will merely consent to walk round the kitchen-garden for himself, and really looks at cabbages and cauliflowers, he will feel at once that they are vast and elemental things like the mountains in the clouds. He will feel somehing almost monstrous about the size and solidity of the things swelling out of that small and tidy patch of ground. There are modds in which that everyday English kitchen plot will affect him as men are affected by the reeking wealth and toppling rapidity of tropic vegetation; the green bubbles and crawling branches of a nightmare.
It's an excellent little essay (and strangely appended on that webpage with a poem by Emily Dickinson, but no matter).

So, how did this quote become attributed to Terry Pratchett? Well, presumably rusty read it somewhere, and I think it very likely that Pratchett was quoting Chesterton, or paraphrasing him, rather than it being merely a misattribution. After all, Pratchett and his co-author Neil Gaiman dedicated their novel Good Omens "to the memory of G.K. Chesterton: A man who knew what was going on."

*[link to a Google Docs mirror of a pdf I found in the class materials for "Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds," a class at West Chester University]
posted by ocherdraco at 8:35 AM on October 16, 2009 [12 favorites]


> That's it? She almost never mentions Charlie again after part 1, and never says anything substantive about why she hates it so much.

I've just skimmed the first article, and this paragraph seems to sum up at least part of her argument:
What I object to in Charlie is its phony presentation of poverty and its phony humor, which is based on punishment with overtones of sadism; its hypocrisy which is epitomized in its moral stuck like a marshmallow in a lump of fudge — that TV is horrible and hateful and time-wasting and that children should read good books instead, when in fact the book itself is like nothing so much as one of the more specious television shows.
I get what she's saying, but from my multiple readings of the book as a child, it simply isn't true. She's accusing the book of being nothing but fluff, when practically every chapter is meant to impart some sort of lesson. To me it always seemed less about the naughty children and more about their nasty parents, who spoiled their children to the point of ruining their character. Charlie, on the other hand, grew up eating cabbage soup and providing for his grandparents. No, it's not a realistic portrayal of poverty - it's a children's book. In Dahl's books, the good protagonist is always rewarded in the end, while the baddies are punished or humiliated. Sure, that's unrealistic, but it always seemed like a pretty good message to me. And I turned out just fine.
posted by wundermint at 8:35 AM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is an exceptional post.
posted by HumanComplex at 8:58 AM on October 16, 2009


Offering apology without prompting for a mistake is a far more mature behavior. Very Christian.

Um... what? Not really meaning to derail, but please don't trot out that old "morality is found through Christ and only through Christ" canard. It's not true, as many secular humanists have demonstrated throughout history, and it's insulting to anyone who seeks to live a life which spreads love and joy into the world without the supposed guidance of Jesus as an excuse to do so.
posted by hippybear at 9:39 AM on October 16, 2009


How embarrassing. I did utterly misattribute that quote. If Chesterton said it, that completely rules out Pratchett as the source, huh? I wonder why that connection was so strong in my head? Maybe I read Pratchett quote Chesterton somewhere.
posted by rusty at 9:43 AM on October 16, 2009


This post is really great, and I regret that the only thing I have to contribute is to point how easily-anagrammed "Paul Heins" is in order to become "Penis Haul".
posted by Greg Nog at 10:00 AM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


What a crock! You have to be blind to the themes of Dahl's other books to think these things about Charlie. His heroes are all poachers or crafty losers, and often they have large helpings of dumb luck to help them out. He wasn't a nasty person at all, just a little bit raunchy and a little bit full of righteous indignation at infantilization rampantly substituting for humanism. His books teach a wonderful ironic detachment from the world's absurdities, BOY possibly most and most truly of all.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:29 AM on October 16, 2009


Not much to say except great post. It's amazing to see the glacial pace of debates in the pre-Internet age.

Part 1: ditto. Part 2: in my readings of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I view this debate is a speedy thing, when compared to communications on the prairie. Send a letter in fall, get a reply by winter, and send a response in spring.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:34 AM on October 16, 2009


I agree with her recommendation of Gulliver's Travels though. I still recall how my children laughed at the mental image of Gulliver sticking his penis through the Queen of Lilliput's bedroom window to extinguish the fire, and how outraged they were at his being blinded and starved for his heroic act.

Not sure how she thinks this would play in the US school system though.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:19 PM on October 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Dahl's first draft also included a chapter on the fame-chasing Heenes, who, in order to garner more media attention, untether one of Wonka's experimental dirigibles and pretend that their child (foreshadowingly named "Falcon") has stolen it. In the end, Falcon tells the truth about the hoax, and a suspicious mishap involving some "helium chews" turns the parents into balloons themselves. As they float away helplessly, kicking and screaming, Wonka offers Falcon a commission as a squadron leader in his 34th Airborne Division ("Bonbon Bombers").

It was a good chapter, and it's too bad it didn't make it into the final draft.
posted by speicus at 2:30 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


In 1972, Cameron wrote: The poet Karl Shapiro has spoken of the contempt and the staggering illiteracy of youth: “We have the most inarticulate generation of college students in history.”

Same as it ever was. But still worth a hearty laugh.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:30 PM on October 16, 2009


PeterMcDermott: if memory serves, that scene IS in the Ted Danson tv mini-series which was produced not terribly long ago. One of the best tellings of Gulliver that I can recall seeing, actually. Kept all the political stuff intact and covered all four of the countries he visits, not just the one or two that are normally translated to the screen.
posted by hippybear at 2:37 PM on October 16, 2009


Even as a kid, I thought that Charlie was fluff compared to some of Dahl's other books, especially Fantastic Mr. Fox and Danny, the Champion of the World.

Of course it's true that all of his books are just escapist fun, and maybe there are "overtones of sadism" from an adult perspective. But for a powerless child stuck in miserable circumstances, I think Dahl's kind of escapism can be healthy: it's possible to find humor in the worst situations; there's hope of rising out of your current misery and making a new life for yourself; no one can take away your personal dignity; etc.

Anyway, great post!
posted by mubba at 5:13 PM on October 16, 2009


I'm going to spend some time with this . . . but from the pull-quote and descriptions, I have almost no sense of what this controversy was really about. And this thread is mostly about other stuff, actually, which suggests to me maybe no one else got it, either.
posted by grobstein at 6:58 PM on October 16, 2009


grobstein, part of what was going on in the Horn Book saga was that people were arguing many different points, and those points often didn't intersect each other (see where Paul Heins tries to untangle it all). Roald Dahl rebuts something other than Eleanor Cameron's actual points in his reply, and each of the letter writers defends points of view that may or may not have been expressed by either of the main parties in the argument. That's part of what makes it so fascinating: it isn't clear at all what came from this, other than some influence on the Oompa Loompa revision. What's particularly interesting is the ferocity of the argument, the mere fact that these people cared this much about children's literature.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:07 PM on October 16, 2009


@ grumblebee... thanks for seeing my point and although shmegegge, (and dude, you KNOW me!!) i can see what you are talking about as well.
maybe literature isnt always meant to be a conversation starter but people do and always will talk about the stories. does every book a third grader read need to teach a "good" lesson? and isnt it good for them to be able to put down the story and say, wow, the descriptions were great but wasnt that messed up about the oompa loompas? or whatever. maybe its too much for a younger child but my third grader has read the story and come out of it with some incredible thoughts. some of it she liked, admired, and some of it was like wow mom, veruca is a bad girl! (its at the point where when they beg for shit at the store i call them veruca and they understand what i mean. these caricatures of children can be used as shortcuts to moral lessons. the same can be said of other aspects of this story (any many others)
what about where the wild things are where with the recent release of the movie, sendak is quoted as saying, in response to it being too scary for the age of the kids that will want to see it, oh well, if its too scary. let them piss their pants! (this is not a direct quote but close enough). dahl has spoken often of his respect for children. i think that he was presenting them with an entertaining story where parts of it make GROWN UPS uncomfortable.
*stepping off soap box now and going to sleep*
posted by stackmonster at 10:36 PM on October 16, 2009


Morality tales aside, Eleanor Cameron seems simply to lack much of a sense of humor. What I always loved about Roald Dahl as a child was that he was so brilliantly gloriously perfectly funny. He knew how to phrase things so that they were just hilarious, and could tell the story of someone possibly being ground up in a machine in such a silly, offhand way that it was spectacularly absurd and a little frightening at the same time. His books were exciting and comical, with unique characters and original environments. They were inspired. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory was never my favorite to start with (I liked the Witches, James & the Giant Peach, and the BFG) but it was imaginative and alive just like everything he wrote.

That didn't mean I applied these things to my real life or believed them to be the case. They were fantasy worlds, ways to expand the imagination, like Oz and Narnia. I don't think children are necessarily seeking justice, either - perhaps they're just better at understanding metaphors and imaginary worlds. When the "baddies" are knocked off, that doesn't have to mean in real life one would reduce a person to their worst trait and punish them severely for holding it. The individuals can represent the traits themselves as aspects of anyone's personalities.
posted by mdn at 9:11 AM on October 17, 2009


Will Self on Roald Dahl
posted by dng at 4:19 AM on October 19, 2009


That's delightful:
It helps that it's such a very good entrée: "What a lot of hairy-faced men there are about nowadays. When a man grows hair all over his face it is impossible to tell what he really looks like. Perhaps that's why he does it. He'd rather you didn't know." To my mind Dahl's flatly authoritative statements have a universal sweep and psychological penetration to rival the first line of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, with the added bonus of actually being true; I mean, there are undoubtedly many happy families that are altogether unalike, while – speaking with all the authority of the recently barbellate – I can assure you that when a man grows hair on his face, he definitely has something to hide.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:22 AM on October 19, 2009


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