Dahl’s not-so-great glass elevator: articulating disappointment

I usually post on Mondays, but here it is Friday and I am just getting around to it now. I don’t know how the week slipped by me this way, but I have an inkling my sluggishness has something to do with my disenchantment around our current read, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. We’re not quite finished yet, but from the beginning I have disliked this book. So much so that I urge N’s dad J to be the reader, offering it up  like a treat. “Would you like to … ?” He isn’t fooled by my generosity. He finds the story tedious too. And while N thinks the book “seems pretty good,” she is intrigued by our reaction to it.

“You don’t like it, do you?” she asks, grinning.

“No.” How refreshing to be so certain.

“But why?”

To be honest, it’s hard to say, because it’s hard to pay attention to the story. I find my mind wandering as I read (or as J does), and I end up thinking things like, Isn’t it amazing that we can read without comprehending, the way we can hear without really listening, or look without seeing? 

But I do try to articulate my reasons to N, because I think it’s important to say more than “It isn’t my cup of tea.” I want her to be able to say why something doesn’t work for her, and perhaps even what would make it better. (Just as I love it when she can tell me why she likes her new friend “Snowy” at school: “We both believe in magic. We both like adventure. We’re both anxious to do things — like something’s buzzing inside us.”)

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator picks up where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left off, with Charlie, Grandpa Joe and chocolatier extraordinaire Willy Wonka arriving at the Bucket house in the Great Glass Elevator to give good news to Charlie’s family: he has inherited the chocolate factory from Willy Wonka, and they are all going to live there happily ever after and never be poor again. But from there the story spirals off in increasingly bizarre directions. The elevator whisks them into the sky as they begin to make their trip back to the factory, but Grandma Josephine panics, grabs the controls, and suddenly they are orbiting the earth at seventeen thousand miles an hour. The brand new Space Hotel USA is out there too, as is a shuttle containing hotel staff and astronauts communicating with the American president, Lancelot R. Gilligrass, and soon enough the government becomes convinced the elevator contains terrorists bent on blowing up the Space Hotel. The story turns strangely convoluted and political, and ridiculous too, with calls to “Premier Yugetoff” in Russia and “Premier How-Yu-Bin” in China. The president asks knock-knock jokes of the people on the other end of the line: “Knock-knock.” “Who-der?” “Ginger.” “Ginger who?” “Ginger yourself when you fell off the Great Wall of China?” It is truly, groaningly horrible.

I can’t help but feel that Dahl was telling a story for children with a lot of nudge-nudge wink-winks for grown-ups, too, a tactic I really dislike — when the President rhymes off the names of famous hotel owners Mr. Hilton, Mr. Ritz, Mr. Astoria and Mr. Waldorf, it means nothing to N. Nor does the knock-knock joke about “Warren Peace.” Sure, you can explain these things (and pausing to explain can be a lovely part of reading with children), but in this case the iota of humour would be lost by then anyway.

This doesn’t feel like a story written with care. It feels tossed off, and largely Charlie-less. It is picking up slightly, now that Wonka et al have arrived back at the factory, and the story is more solidly focused on its characters, but even here I sensed a wrong note. Willy Wonka convinces Charlie’s curmudgeonly, creakingly old grandparents that they should take Wonka-vite, a pill with the power to make them twenty years younger. With a bit of simple math, he’s warned them of the dire consequences of taking too many. Seduced by the desire to be young again, they grab for the pills and begin to fight over them, eventually swallowing four each and turning rapidly into babies. This tiny moment could have been vintage Dahl, but it’s spoiled by a curious switch in perspective. Suddenly we are in Wonka’s thoughts, of all places, though the power and magic of Wonka’s character lies in the fact that he is enigmatic, mysterious, impossible to understand. But here he is, musing for pages on end: “He hated squabbles. He hated it when people got grabby and selfish…. It was an unhappy truth, he told himself, that nearly all people in the world behave badly when there is something really big at stake.”

I keep thinking back to my earlier research about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and how I read that Dahl hated the Gene Wilder movie version so much he refused a film version of The Great Glass Elevator. “Maybe,” I suggested to J this morning, “he’d finally realized how bad the book was, and was doing damage control!”

But all this negativity is bringing me down. Scouring the internet for other opinions of Dahl’s not-so-great glass elevator, I found this simple, perfect quote by moonflygirl, who’s scanned a load of gorgeous old book covers on flickr. “As much as I love Roald Dahl, I think this book taught me that sequels can be disappointing.” Having gone on at length articulating my disappointment, this one spare sentence feels much more dignified. But I’m curious — how do others critique books with their children?

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18 responses to “Dahl’s not-so-great glass elevator: articulating disappointment

  1. Oh! We critique books all the time. I encourage the kids to articulate what they do and don’t like about what they’re reading. My older daughter (age 9) is particularly astute at identifying problems with structure or characterization — and also at identifying what works, too. It’s okay to be bored by a book. Even better if you can talk about why.

  2. So smart! We talk a lot about the images, too, since Dahl’s books were illustrated by different artists, and in many different styles. Which cover suits the story best, etc. N loves Quentin Blake’s style overall, but doesn’t always pick him as the best for a particular story.

  3. We often talk about what works and what doesn’t. We started a Howard Pyle Robin Hood, and the prose was just waaaay too stilted for them. They could point to that. Also, instant critique from me, the one-who-reads-aloud, I won’t read TV tie-in books, superhero books, Geronimo Stilton, etc. Life is too short. I tell them I won’t read them because they are poorly written, lack imagination, are too formulaic, etc. If they want to read them, that’s fine, and, in fact, a good incentive to read independently, but I find that they always come back to the good stuff!

  4. We took turns picking the read alouds, so I did read some TV tie-ins (mostly Pokemon) which I found dull but the boys liked. But my hardest read aloud was HP’s Order of the Phoenix, which took FOREVER to get started. Somehow reading out loud made Harry seem super whiny.

    Reading picture books I hate out loud can be fun, because my tone can express what I’m not enjoying. When I read Rainbow Fish out loud, the insanity of asking even a vain person to tear his skin off to become acceptable comes through very strongly.

    • Ha! I love this approach. Reminds me of reading the Rainbow Fairy books with N, and the only way I could enjoy it was to ham up the reading and make it even more saccharine. Sometimes I ended up in stitches I amused myself so terribly.

  5. Ann T

    Can’t say I’m surprised you didn’t like this book. I almost posted my dislike of Charlie Part 2 when I read your list of “yet to reads” and saw this was one of them. As much as I like other Dahl stories, this one had me rolling my eyes and giving the raspberry and really wanting to quit reading it – something I never do! It was over the top ridiculous.

  6. Rige

    Cannot imagine reading this Dahl book to my children way-back-when. Too ridiculous. I will be, for the first time, returning this month’s book to our library book club without reading past the first 40 pages. And am searching for the words to express my reasons other than “boring”. Good to learn this ability early in life.
    Rd

    • That’s one of the great things about a book club. It gets everyone talking about the book, so you’re exposed to some different perspectives — or to others who felt the way you did and can better explain why! I’ve sometimes found that I appreciate a hum-drum book more when I’ve discussed it with a group. Partly because I’ve heard other opinions, but maybe more because I’ve had to clarify my own.

  7. HJM

    Can I just point out this book is aimed at children? And as such, as adults really to be honest we shouldn’t comment on books that are primarily aimed at young children if we haven’t read them as children, as we don’t have the same thoughts, feelings and perspectives as we did when we were young. I personally read this story as a child – maybe 8/9/10 years old perhaps? – and I loved it.
    Granted the plot is all over the place and the story is so far from reality it’s unbelievable and yes even a a child I realised that it couldn’t possibly ever really happen in true life but then again, it is my belief that children’s fiction can and should be whimsical and fully of fantasy and essentially disbelief at the plots. It gives children the chance to use their own imaginations which I think is severly lacking in today’s young society. Not to be dissing the great JK Rowling but her stories in comparison to this one are completely off the mark and is unfair, as firstly they are set in a different genre to any of Dahl’s works. Rowlings works also have the same sets of characters which are developed over all her stories and her writings are a lot more in depth than Dahls few pages in which he set his stories out. Therefore how can you properly build a character or for that fact an enthralling, imaginative and compelling story in a few short pages? These are children’s books not young adults or teenagers and I think a lot of people forget that.
    I for one will always remember Dahl as being the author that kept me enthralled at a young age and kept me reading book after book of his – some better than others naturally – and getting lost in the imagination and fiction he created.

    • Funny — I totally agree with your comments about what children’s fiction can and should be. But I totally disagree that as adults we shouldn’t comment on kids books when we read them as adults. And I think you will see if you glance through my oodles of other Dahl posts that I adore Roald Dahl as a children’s writer. This book, though, did not work for me, and the point of the post was that it is important for both children and adults to be able to articulate how they feel about what they read. Thanks for your comment.

      • Ted W

        It’s funny, I googled “Why no Great Glass Elevator movie?” and this came up. I read this book at about the same age as the OP, 8-10, and loved it. I got the Hilton/Marriott references. The stupid plays on names and knock knock jokes were just smart enough that I felt good for getting them at the time, but definitely dumb enough that I did get them. It’s a little all over the place, but if you like Roald Dahl I think it’s a fun read. I’m glad over the course of reading these posts I did find out its because Dahl hated the movie so much he didn’t want to make the sequel. I’m glad they didn’t at the time, they did not have the special effects to do it right.

  8. Thanks for your comment Ted! Good way of putting it — just smart enough, just dumb enough… A tricky balance for the author, I’m sure!

  9. Tywana

    I hated this book with a passion as a kid as well as a 41 year old adult reading it to her 8 year old daughter. BUT, she found it interesting enough to continue reading it to the end so I went along with it but BOY-O-BOY was it painfully irritating. I am so happy there was no movie for me to have to sit through with this one. I’m certain I couldn’t have stomached it! I love, love, love Roald Dahl though and we have immensely enjoyed 6 or 7 of his other books and watched all of the movies as well. Thank you Mr Dahl for your wonderful contribution to such fond imaginative memories from my childhood!

  10. Whilst galloping through a Roald Dahl box set with my 6 year old (which has included classics like the BFG, Twits and Charlie) I have fallen at the Great Glass Elivator fence. This seems to be stir-fry of a book with ideas thrown in but not fully developed. I was hoping to find out how Charlie and his family would get on with running the chocolate factory. Maybe discovering new rooms or inventions or even finding out more about the umpa lumpas. But what I got was a confusing, poorly edited splodge of ideas and themes. I hope it doesn’t put off my daughter reading other Dahl books.

  11. Will

    Having read this when I was very young I very much enjoyed it as a kid. I am now 35 years old. Perhaps that is why you don’t enjoy it. Certain books hold their magic for the childs imagination wich is then lost as we grow older.

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