Bookish Soapbox: Penguin Bungles Children's Book Cover

Get ready. I'm dissecting some publishing industry faux pas. Source: unsplash.com

Get ready. I'm dissecting some publishing industry faux pas. Source: unsplash.com

In light of my recent post, "Judge a Book By Its Cover," I feel compelled to respond to the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory book cover debacle with Penguin Books. 

As they have done many times in the past, Penguin is reimagining the covers of their beloved classics to make them feel relevant to a new audience. This time, they're adding a handful of children's classics to the general classics canon, so those books' covers were reimagined with the same design elements as the adult classics.

In keeping with current design trends, they decided to forego the typical illustrated cover and build the book cover around a photographic element instead. For Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Penguin's new design didn't go over so well...

 

 

Penguin released a preview of the book cover design and asked their Twitter followers for opinions. As you might be thinking yourself, most responders said they felt it was misleading since it insinuates nothing of the chocalatey, golden-ticketed, Oompa Loompa filled Wonka factory. 

However, the biggest problems I see with the cover design are a little more complicated than simply saying it's misleading. 

While I can understand people's frustrations that Penguin featured a little girl on the cover of a book about a boy in a chocolate factory, my issue is not that she's being featured, but how.

I'm bothered by the way they have dressed up this little girl, who couldn't be more than 8 or 10 years old, in a highly sexualized manner. You could bake a (rather un-tasty) cake with the amount of makeup they've slathered on that little girl's face. As if there weren't enough unhealthy images of women and teen girls in mainstream media already, it seems that the same level of disturbing aesthetics is trickling down to children. 

Think about the message that's being sent to a child reading this book--it is, after all, a children's book, despite the fact that Penguin intends to market this copy to adults. A little girl might look at this book and think that she's supposed to look like a life-size Barbie if she's to be considered beautiful. Maybe the Barbies her family has given her over the years are staring her down with their painted blue eyes and plastic thigh gaps and are telling her the same thing. 

And what about boys reading this book? Assuming they're heterosexual, are they supposed to see the girl on the cover as the ideal (young) woman? Are they to be led to believe girls that don't look like that are lazy because they couldn't be bothered to put on makeup for an outing at the playground? Are they supposed to believe that only the "beautiful" girls, the ones who make it onto the covers of books, are worthy of their respect? 

Penguin said that its reimagined classics were intended for an adult audience, but I don't see how that makes the bungled book cover any better. So adults are supposed to be drawn to a book with a highly sexualized child on the cover? If that's the case, what does that say about adults, or Penguin's perception of adult desires? I have a hard time believing that adults are wholly unable to enjoy reading a children's book unless there's a sexualized little girl on the cover. 

I'm all for updating book covers, but I think Penguin went too far pushing the envelope. Whimsical and childlike covers, like the one above, seem more true to the story. Plus, it's hard to beat Quentin Blake. But if Penguin wanted to go the creepy route, they could've had Grim Grisly re-illustrate the book. 

I'm all for updating book covers, but I think Penguin went too far pushing the envelope. Whimsical and childlike covers, like the one above, seem more true to the story. Plus, it's hard to beat Quentin Blake. But if Penguin wanted to go the creepy route, they could've had Grim Grisly re-illustrate the book. 

Yes, I do think the cover is misleading. In fact, it distinctly reminds me of the scene in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions where the protagonist mentions that no one will read his science fiction novels unless his editor changes the covers to porn pics and the titles to something you might hear in response to "talk dirty to me." But more than misleading, Penguin's reimagining of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover is downright degrading. 

The cover isn't ugly, it's just wrong. Wrong for the content, wrong for the audience, and wrong for all the awful things a cover like this implies. Had this cover been put on a copy of Lolita, I would feel very differently. Actually, no, I wouldn't. Because anyone who has read Lolita knows she's the victim. See the damage these things can do to our social consciousness? 

With all the backlash, (TIME and Adweek aren't fans, either) it's surprising that Penguin would issue a statement defending their choice of book cover. I think it's easily understood that Penguin defending the book cover, and therefore all the book cover's implications, is less than tactful on their part, but I'm more concerned with the fact that they bothered to defend it at all. 

I seriously doubt anyone who disapproved or disliked the book cover would read Penguin's defense and suddenly change his or her mind. Rather, it comes across as Penguin saying, "We like the design so much that we don't care if no one buys it." If anything, Penguin's defense isolated their potential customers and made it clear that what customers want doesn't matter to the company. 

Likewise, if you have to explain a piece of art, can it be said to be any good? I'd argue that most good art is able to stand on its own merit and an explanation, if there is one at all, should only serve to enhance the piece. 

I've got my literary feminist dander up, but I want to know what you think! Are people overreacting to the book cover or do you agree with my thoughts? Tell me in the comments! 

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