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The question is why do children love him even though they recognize that he is strange and creepy?

I don't know about "loving" Willy Wonka. I thought the factory was impressive, and I really liked Charlie and his grandpa, but Wonka himself? Not so much.

I have to admit, though, that I don't remember much about the stories in the two books, and more I remember the illustrations. My edition had illustrations of the Oompa-Loompas that made it quite clear that they were little African pygmies, with curly hair and loincloths. That's how I always remembered them, fondly, and thus I found the movie versions creepy and frightening. (You don't feel that the movie Oompa-Loompas are exploited by Wonka; if anything, they're right in there with him doing the scary stuff.)

The other thing I remember vividly (too vividly) were the Venomous Knids. Those were the stuff of nightmares!

So... African pygmies and terrifying slug monsters. Not a whole lot of chocolate and candies in my memories! And, yet, I still count the books among those I would recommend to kids.


This man was the illustrator of the edition I had: Joseph Schindelman.


Honestly, a lot of Dahl's work has some sort've questionable or possibly age-inappropriate material. I'm in my early 30's now, but I remember telling my mom all about James and the Giant Peach, which we were reading in school. The boy who grows a peach so big so he can runaway, killing his evil aunts in the process raised her eyebrow. I was enraptured with the story... that their deaths were "bad" never occurred to me.

Around that same age, I tried to stage a working of a play of Charlie and the Chocolate factory in which the Ooompa Loompas were clearly an African tribe. I don't know if that stuck with me through my childhood into adulthood or what, but my assumption was always that they were human in some way. In fact, until reading this post it never occurred to me that someone might view it differently.

Bill Altreuter

Hate Charlie. Wonka is mean, and capricious, and the racism always bothered me. On the other hand, I love Dr. Doolittle, racism and all, because it is recognizably a period piece, and because in the later volumes Prince Bumpo returns and is an intelligent stalwart. Also, talking animals.

Where I thought you were going with this was "it's only a story". The reason the people who condemn the Harry Potter books fail to recognize that it's only a story is that their entire world view is shaped by a similarly impossible, made-up book of make believe which they insist is literally true in the most profound sense of truth. This distorts their ability to distinguish reality from fiction, and compels them to attack books that are not the book they like.

Me? I believe in Moby Dick, but that doesn't mean that I think a whale is a fish.

Lance Mannion


This is one of those posts where I lost track of my own point. "It's only a story" was supposed to be my point. I don't know how to get back to it.

I think my feelings about the Doctor Doolittle books is like my feelings about Thornton W. Burgress', which you also liked. I think you're a more open-hearted reader than I am.

Bill Altreuter

Am I an open-hearted reader? That's an interesting question. Maybe I'm just a guy who likes talking animal stories.

I do think that I have always recognized that attitudes about things like race have changed over time. I like Dr. Doolitle because he is genuinely kind, and sincerely tries to do the right thing. In the Prince Bumpo section, for example, his life and the lives of his animals are all imperiled, and he still has to be argued into turning Bumpo's skin white. He knows it is wrong (even if Hugh Lofting isn't entirely clear on this), and there is never any question about the humanity of the prince or the king of Jolliginki-- in fact, the king's grievances seem pretty legitimate. Bumpo is foolish, but it is because he young and romantic. Later he is more level-headed-- he grows. This doesn't really happen to Wonka, who remains a SOB. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is really about how money solves everything, which is an unlovely message (even if it's true).


Damn! Quite the post! I'm trying to remember if our edition of Chocolate Factory had the oompa-loompas as pygmies. (It was pretty old.)

Besides the imperialism issues, Roald Dahl did write a fair amount of horror or horror-laced fiction that I read as I got older, and almost all of his children's fiction has some touch of that. My favorite of his was James and the Giant Peach, which I read 5 or 6 times as a kid. Still, I wasn't crazy about the evil aunts being flattened by the peach, even if they were evil. Bleeding heart, I guess. Chocolate Factory was more cruel (when I got older I appreciated the dark humor more, but there's a lot of it) and the Great Glass Elevator may have been the spookiest. I suppose Dahl was just working in the Grimm tradition.

I might have to include this post in my Banned Books Week roundup, Lance, but perhaps there's more to come from House Mannion as well...


Wonderful post, Lance. Another noteworthy aspect of the book is Dahl's unsparing depiction of the realities of poverty and privation. I was deeply affected as a child by his raw descriptions of Charlie's wretched day-to-day existence, particularly the precarious state of Charlie's health due to chronic undernourishment. The Oompa-Loompas, of course, were frankly starving to death when Willy first encountered them, subsisting on diet of mashed caterpillars, as I recall. The imagery was powerful and indelible.

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