Tag Archives: charlie and the chocolate factory

If picture books are caterpillars …

bye bye butterfliesN is still insisting on reading the juicy novels on her own, so we’ve been making our way through a wonderful new batch of picture books lately. She loves to draw, as some of you may have noticed, so she takes particular interest in how a book is illustrated, and whether or not the author made the images. She still loves a good story, but she’s also curious about the mechanics of the words and pictures coming together, and how the pictures show us unwritten parts of the story.

We were both intrigued by the pictures in Andrew Larsen’s Bye Bye Butterflies, illustrated by Jacqueline Hudon-Verrelli. The colourful people with their overlarge heads and simple curve smiles are charming, as are the wonky brick buildings and crooked window frames in the background. What I love most is seeing the artist’s hand here — the uneven pencil-crayon strokes and the bits of newsprint that give the pictures a collage-like feel. When I see this kind of work that shows hints of its process, it reminds me of sitting up close at a ballet, and hearing the dancers’ shoes squeak across the floor with each powerful move. It’s as if I’ve been invited in.

We both enjoyed the story too, which tells of a little preschool boy named Charlie, out walking with his dad when he sees a stream of waving hands on the school rooftop. “Bye bye, butterflies!” the children holler, and a cloud of butterflies emerges above them — butterflies of all sizes and colours, lifting off into the sky. Charlie says to his father, “Maybe I could do something like that one day.”

The story jumps ahead a few months, and Charlie is in kindergarten, “doing somersaults in gym and learning to sit still during storytime.” He’s forgotten all about that butterfly moment, until one day in spring a package arrives that says “LIVE CONTENTS, OPEN IMMEDIATELY.”

“Inside the package were tiny jars. Inside the jars was some special goop. And inside the goop were teeny tiny caterpillars.”

And so begins Charlie’s experience of watching the caterpillars transform, seeing them eat the goop, grow big and fuzzy, then dangle upside down and wrap themselves inside their cocoons.

“I wish we could keep the butterflies forever,” one of Charlie’s classmates laments. “I know,” he says, remembering the hands on the rooftop. “But just wait and see!”

The children finally release the butterflies, just as Charlie had witnessed the year before. Larsen provides a beautiful circular ending by placing another little preschooler on the sidewalk below, out walking with his dad and looking up at the waving hands and the liberated butterflies.

It’s a lovely story about metamorphosis, about waiting and observing, about beginnings and endings, and then endings and new beginnings. About feeling “a little happy and a little sad all at once.” And in that way it resonates with both parent and child.


I feel a little like this myself these days, as N grows in all ways, slipping her feet into my rubber boots, which are almost her size. I’ve mentioned before the moment we stood in front of her bookshelf and she said “It’s just that I like to read those kinds of books by myself now,” and how it was heartening and heart-wrenching all at once. So maybe reading is another form of metamorphosis.

N is in Grade 4 now, and they have weekly “lit circles,” where a group of kids who are reading the same novel get together and discuss various aspects of the story. Each week, a child plays a different role in the circle: one person tracks the action in the story and where the scenes  change; another makes connections between the story and his own life, or the story and other books he’s read; another quotes key passages or looks up difficult words; and another makes visual interpretations of a favourite scene or character.

How I would love to be a fly on the wall hearing her pontificate about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Louis Sachar’s Holes, which she’s reading now. But I can’t be everywhere in her life anymore, nor should I be. Still, I like to think she’s well-prepared for this because of all our years curled up together, reading one story after another.


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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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Discus & Teacups

Henrietta shares her tea

We took Matilda with us to Ottawa last weekend for a little winter getaway, and it was a good thing she was there, since in the middle of the night, the hotel’s alarm went off, ten horrible long hoots followed by a repeatedly repeated emergency announcement that had N wild with anxiety. The “emergency” was quickly resolved, but getting back to sleep was another matter. So out came Matilda. A page or two of this brilliant little girl outsmarting the gruff and grotesque headmistress Trunchbull was the perfect tranquilizer.

Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Twit, you have to love Miss Trunchbull, even while you detest her. Once a formidable athlete, she has a bull-neck, sausagey fingers, and “massive thighs encased in a pair of extraordinary breeches.” She picks children up by their ears and their pig tails and hurls them at will — out classroom windows, over playground fences — and she gets away with it because she knows enough to “make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable.” The parents don’t buy the children’s tales about her, or if they do, and complain about how their kids are treated, the Trunchbull does the same to them. Imagine moms and dads sailing through the air like a discus.

But it’s the Trunchbull’s cruelty that brings out Matilda’s hidden powers — her “first miracle”. She’s so enraged at being falsely accused of slipping a salamander into the Trunchbull’s water glass, that she causes the glass to tip over simply by staring at it. “Little waves of lightning seemed to be flashing out of her eyes. Her eyeballs  were beginning to get hot, as though vast energy was building up somewhere inside them. It was an amazing sensation. She kept her eyes steadily on the glass, and now the power was concentrating itself in one small part of each eye and growing stronger and stronger and it felt as though millions of tiny little invisible arms with hands on them were shooting out of her eyes towards the glass she was staring at. ‘Tip it,’ Matilda whispered. ‘Tip it over!’ ” And so she makes the discovery of her own incredible power. (Oh, how I remember doing this myself! Never actually moving anything, but absolutely convinced that I could. Going dizzy and bug-eyed trying.)

Re power, it seemed fitting, then, that the next day we tromped through the slush to visit the Famous Five and their teacups on Parliament Hill. As we posed with Nellie McClung holding the news that “Women are Persons!” I half-expected N to say, “Well, duh, what else would we be?” because the idea of such an argument was so preposterous to her. So I explained (albeit briefly and simply) about the Persons Case, and how women have had to fight for equal treatment. I could feel N thinking hard about that. Together we stood looking at Henrietta Muir Edwards, holding her tea cup aloft. She had a perfect disc of snowy ice on her head, like an extra little cap or a discus, and when I pointed that out, chuckling, N said very seriously, “I think we should take that off Mom.” So I reached forward and returned Henrietta to her dignified state.

I love N’s sensitivity, and her curiosity too. The way she sees, the questions she asks. We used to call her “our little noticer,” and though the slightly clumsy nickname has fallen away, the noticing has not.

Later that Ottawa day we were in the Byward Market, gobbling Beaver Tails, and a down-and-out man approached us and spoke to N’s dad J, hoping for change. When J returned the greeting, the man said, “Thank you for not making me feel invisible.” And N asked about that too.

“What does he mean, invisible?”

“Well, he feels like no one sees him. Like he’s not even here, because no one notices him.”

“So it’s like he’s a ghost, then,” she decided. “He feels like he’s already died but he hasn’t.”

Like James before entering the magical Giant Peach; like starving Charlie Bucket before finding the Golden Ticket. “Several people went hurrying past him on the sidewalk, their chins sunk deep in the collars of their coats, their feet crunching in the snow … none of them was taking the slightest notice of the small boy crouching in the gutter.”

We bought two more Dahls in Ottawa — The Magic Finger, devoured on the car ride home, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, now nearly done. Thus far, our list looks like this:

The Gremlins
James and the Giant Peach
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Magic Finger
Fantastic Mr Fox
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Danny, the Champion of the World
The Enormous Crocodile
The Twits
George’s Marvellous Medicine
The Witches
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
Esio Trot
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
The Minpins
Revolting Rhymes
Dirty Beasts
Rhyme Stew

On we go!


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“Good thoughts will shine out of your face like sunbeams”

William Kilburn's 1777 watercolour shows the dandelion in all its elegance.

I got a note this morning from a friend, telling me that N has been regaling her daughter AW with stories of Harry Potter. And now AW and her family are reading Harry Potter before the lights go out and again at the breakfast table. And it occurred to me that good books are like dandelion seeds that just keep on floating and finding new homes. Not that good books are common, but that they are enduring. N has been asking about the meaning of the word “classic” lately, and dandelion seeds might make a good analogy. (In my mind, dandelions are a classic flower.)

Since I last posted about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we have carried on with our Roald Dahl mission. We’ve made our way through James and the Giant Peach, then The Twits, and are now halfway through Matilda. I remain a loyal Dahl fan, though The Twits disappointed.  It’s about Mr. Twit, a hairy, cruel, crass ex-monkey trainer with bits of tinned sardine and Stilton cheese in his beard, and his wife Mrs. Twit,  who’s grown ugly over the years because of her ugly thoughts. “If a person has ugly thoughts,” Dahl writes, “it begins to show on the face. … A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” (That part I liked.)

Together, Mr. and Mrs. Twit are “the smelliest, nastiest, ugliest people in the world.” Mrs. Twit walks with a cane, not because she needs supporting but because she likes to hit children and animals with it. Mr. Twit drinks beer at breakfast. They are united by their ugliness — Mr. Twit catches the birds that land on a nearby tree by smearing the branches with glue, and Mrs. Twit cooks the birds into a pie — but they are also ugly to each other. They’re constantly getting each other back for some nasty trick with a trick that is nastier still. Mrs. Twit feeds her husband worms disguised as spaghetti, and so Mr. Twit gradually lengthens Mrs. Twit’s cane to convince her she’s got “the shrinks.”

It is a funny story, though for me (admittedly not for N) it quickly wore thin. I kept asking myself, why isn’t this working? The answer lay more than halfway through the book, when we meet a family of monkeys the Twits keep in a cage outside. The monkeys hate the Twits and long to return to the African jungle, and to escape the people who’ve made their lives so miserable. These monkeys are our Charlie, our James of the Giant Peach, our Harry. They’re the ones we need to attach ourselves to in order to care about the story, and they are absent from the early pages. There isn’t enough time left in the story to really fall for them, though of course we want them to escape, and we are happy when the Roly-Poly Bird and the would-be pie birds help them pull the ultimate prank on the Twits.

Dahl himself wrote that he simply wanted to “do something against beards,” so I suppose I’m taking The Twits far too seriously. But what is so brilliant about Charlie and James and Matilda and the BFG is how quickly and unequivocally we bond with the main characters. Impoverished Charlie trying to share his yearly chocolate bar with his family; James held hostage in the cruel world of Aunts Sponge and Spiker; tiny Matilda forced to put her stupid book away and watch telly with her horribly uncouth family (“Don’t you ever stop reading?”); little Sophie quaking in the dark orphanage, only to be scooped up by a dream-catching giant.

The Twits has none of that. It didn’t diminish N’s enjoyment of the story, but she did ask several times, “Mom, who is more main? Mr. or Mrs.?” Which leads me to believe she was unsure of who was taking us through. I suspect the monkeys were meant to take us through, but arrived too late for the job.

Now Matilda, in more ways than one, is another story. I have a soft spot for Quentin Blake’s depictions of her, since they remind me of my own little N. The similarities stop there: N is smart, funny, and delightful, and Matilda is a genius. By five, she’s read Dickens and Steinbeck, despite the fact that her parents are monstrous and see her as “nothing more than a scab. … Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away.”

I wonder if it’s Matilda’s brilliance that has N asking about classics and reciting her multiplication tables to me. On her top bookshelf, she has a row of books written by me. Last night she pulled down Water Wings, my first novel, and began to read, grinning all the while. It’s not a book for children, and I’m sure she’ll lose interest soon.

“Did it feel weird,” she asked, “the first time  you saw your name on a book?”

“Yes,” I said. “But it feels weirder to see you reading it.”

She picked out lines she liked and read them to me. And they were nice ones, if I do say so myself, which is a compliment to both of us. As I pulled her door closed, she called out, “I like your book, Mom. It’s really good.” And though she only got a page in, it was strangely touching. Touching that she thought it was good, yes, but also that she had every confidence that her opinion mattered.



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However small, the chance was there

"Twice a day, on his way to and from school, little Charlie Bucket had to walk right past the gates of the factory. And every time he went by, he would begin to walk very, very slowly, and he would hold his nose high in the air and take long deep sniffs of the gorgeous chocolatey smell all around him. Oh, how he loved that smell!"

After my last post, in which I talked about “practice in disappointment,” I had a note from a friend, whose daughters are young women now. She wrote that she, too, used to want to fix every little thing that went wrong in her girls’ lives. “To act on every emotional vent that they had about life, people, you name it. What they have taught me though, was that when I rushed in too quickly to help them up or to try and fix it for them (and I went to insane lengths to fix things looking back), it made them feel that I didn’t believe they could cope, that I didn’t have the confidence in their ability to get through it…. So I think I have finally learned to listen with a wrenching twist in my gut to their heartaches, encourage them, and rejoice with them when they get through a difficult time.”

I told her I would like to fold up that piece of wisdom and keep it in my pocket always.

And then late last night, after N had gone to bed, I found myself hovering over her piano homework, a picture that she was supposed to colour according to the musical notes placed on different parts of the image. C was orange, D was pink. But the pink she’d chosen looked almost exactly like the orange, and I was actually standing there considering going over it with a pinker pink! Because I knew she’d got it right — the cap was pinker than the lousy marker, but her teacher couldn’t know that. And so on, and so on. Of course, I stopped myself, and even laughed at myself for the impulse. But it’s a sign of this very issue — practice in disappointment — and I’m sure it will keep cropping up in different ways in the years to come.

This past week we’ve been reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which brims with disappointment for the first ten chapters. Charlie Bucket lives “in a small wooden house on the edge of a great town.” Stuffed into the place with him are his dad, who works in a toothpaste factory but soon loses his job; his mom; and his two sets of shriveled, skeletal grandparents, George and Georgina and Joe and Josephine, all in their nineties, and so given the only bed in the house. The J’s sleep at one end, and the G’s at the other, while Mr and Mrs Bucket and little Charlie sleep on the floor. They live on boiled potatoes and cabbage, and on Sundays they each get a second helping. “The Buckets, of course, didn’t starve, but every one of them … went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.”

The eyebrows, the hair brush, and the raised pinkie: signs of wealth?

Even before we started Charlie, N was mulling rich and poor. She often asks if Selena Gomez, JK Rowling, or her own school principal are rich. Was Judy Garland? Was Charles Dickens? Sometimes at night she announces that, the next day, she’s not going to eat a speck of food, “Just to feel what it feels like to have nothing in my tummy.” But by morning, when the toast or the cereal or the yoghurt-with-a-swirl-of-honey appears before her, she seems to have forgotten, or at least pushed the curiosity aside for another day.

I can tell she’s impressed by Charlie, who refuses a share of his mother’s portion of food when she offers, and who tries to share his birthday chocolate bar (the only one he gets for the whole year) with the other members of his family. The largest and most fantastic chocolate factory in the world stands within sight of Charlie’s rickety little house, but for a long while its owner, genius Willy Wonka, ceased operations because other chocolate makers were stealing his wonderful ideas. Now, he’s offering a tour of his factory to a select few: the five lucky children who happen upon chocolate bars that contain a golden ticket.

Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka terrified me as a child. I was very confused about whether or not I was supposed to like him. I haven't seen Johnny Depp's performance, but it would fun to compare the two movies.

N has known this story for some time. She saw the 1971 movie when she was little (Dahl despised the film, apparently, and refused to give over rights to the book’s sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator), and we’ve been listening to the abridged audio version over Christmas, featuring Dahl himself with his delicious accent. But I often wonder, remembering the way she cursed JK  (“I wish she would just write the story the way I have it in my head!”), how she would have responded to the book without knowing what’s to come.  I suspect it would have infuriated her to see gluttonous Augustus Gloop, spoiled rotten Veruca Salt, gum-smacking Violet Beauregarde, and TV-addicted Mike Teavee winning golden tickets while poor Charlie shrinks to skin and bone without an ounce of self-pity. In the first 45 pages, a few chocolate bars miraculously come his way, and he can’t help but think that “however small the chance might be of striking lucky, the chance was there.” I admire Dahl’s restraint here, making us peel open the bars time and again, only to find nothing but chocolate inside.

But, of course, Charlie does find a golden ticket, and he and Grandpa Joe go off to tour the factory with the four rotten children and their parents. There was a sixth rotten child in Dahl’s early drafts — Miranda Piker, who Dahl described as “a horrid little girl who was disgustingly rude to her parents and also thoroughly disobedient,” but apparently her death in the Spotty Powder room was considered too grim for young readers. Dahl loved to go almost too far. The loathsome giants of The BFG actually eat children; and the witches of The Witches actually do snatch children and cause them to disappear forever. And in The Magic Finger, a girl puts a curse on her cruel teacher, which causes her to grow whiskers and a bushy tail. “If any of you are wondering whether Mrs. Winter is quite all right again now,” Dahl writes, “the answer is No. And she never will be.”

More of Dahl’s children’s books to come in the next while, by the way. We have a new goal in mind: we’re going to try to read all of them.


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