Did Penguin Just Design the Worst Book Cover of All Time on Purpose?

Creepy image for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory provokes outcry

The 50th anniversary publication of Roald Dahl's children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is leaving a bad taste in some mouths.

Controversy surrounds the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition, which eschews Willy Wonka's fanciful factory, golden tickets, Oompa-Loompas and other familiar story elements. Instead, we get a stylized image of a young girl, coiffed to the hilt in colorful bows and silks, sitting in her mother's lap.

Detractors are denouncing the shot for sexualizing kids, and they deride its sleazy '60s vibe as inappropriate for a story geared toward young people. They have a valid point, though in fairness, the broader meaning of the image is open to all sorts of interpretations. (It's not overtly sexual. I mean, we don't see Wonka's willy, thank goodness.)

The picture is a cropped version of a photo used in a 2008 fashion magazine feature (see below) completely unrelated to Dahl and the book in question. According to the publisher, the cover "looks at the children at the center of the story, and highlights the way Roald Dahl's writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life."

The tale does mix in stronger themes about child-parent relationships and manipulation (memorably personified by bratty schoolgirl Veruca Salt). Still, that's hardly the book's primary focus, and it's tempting to dismiss Penguin's explanation as candy coating for a publicity ploy designed to drive debate and sell copies. (The publisher certainly seems to be relishing the attention.)

Among the public, bitter reactions outweigh the sweet, with most reasoned negative opinions running along the lines of this comment in Creative Review: "It seems a bit misleading, doesn't it? If I knew nothing about the book, this cover would suggest to me that it's a really disturbing story for adults, probably a thriller about young girls in the beauty industry."

The most deliciously snarky critique comes from The Guardian, which calls it the worst cover of all time, grousing that the image "reimagines Dahl's classic as 1960s Wyndhamesque horror, robotic alien children stranded in a stark asylum."

Here's the original photo, published in Numéro magazine in 2008. Image via.

@DaveGian davegia@hotmail.com David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.