Jessica Sage

e0fd357a-c791-4038-a038-926c6684e3cd-501x720In a marketing move that will no doubt be up for discussion at the next departmental meeting, Penguin launched a new Modern Classics cover on their Facebook page this week, asking readers to guess which novel the cover was for.  It was not, as some guessed, for Lolita or Valley of the Dolls, but rather for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, leading to a backlash in which the cover was called “creepy” and “overly-sexualised” in UK broadsheets including The Independent.  In these claims we have the combination of two familiar concerns: what books are appropriate for children and what photos are we showing of them, two issues I also encounter in my research into children’s literature and Lewis Carroll’s photographs of children.

There has been much debate on social media about whether Penguin were right to publish this cover but for the purposes of this post I want to take a step backwards and not try to ‘solve’ the appropriateness of the book design but rather ask what it is we’re assuming when we try to make a judgement like this.  In doing so I want to think through the implications of “creepy” and “overly-sexualised” and how these concerns might be useful in considering ideas of appropriateness in relation to images of and books for children.

In what ways, then, is the cover “creepy”? By my reading of the image this is to do with The Independent’s understanding of it as “a young doll-like girl in full make-up”, suggesting that the female child is seen as uncanny – the idea that something that should be familiar is not quite as it ought to be.  The girl, then, ought not to be wearing make-up, that expression , those clothes.  Her hair merges with her fur, merges with her feathers: it is difficult to see where body ends and where clothing begins.  What should be her is also what is supplemental to her and this is somehow inappropriate.

The child-not-as-it-should-be raises the question of what a child is in the first place – an issue fundamental to my research.  Informed by Jacqueline Ross and Karín Lesnik-Oberstein’s  work on the child in literature, my reading of child is as construction.  What we call child is not a natural or inherent category or quality but rather a varying construction that produces, rather than speaks to, a supposedly prior real.  In rather crude terms we can consider how we might define a child (perhaps a human under the age of 18) and then ask whether there is one kind of child in this category (is a 12 year old the same kind of child as a 4 year old?) and, if not, whether there can be a natural condition of childhood at all.

So the idea of child, which in The Independent’s article is ‘creepy’, is already uncanny: it is already apparently known but also unstable, changeable, not able to be pinned down.  And yet our discussions of what is appropriate to the child need a real knowable, fixable child as a yardstick.  Otherwise how can we condemn the Penguin cover as ‘overly-sexualised’; that is, too sexual – but for what?  The book?  The child that both is that sexuality and should not be it? Us?  Wrapped up in these concerns about the child are anxieties about femininity.  What female sexuality looks like is not up for debate in the article; the concern is the application of this ‘obvious’ sexuality to a child, another incarnation of the all-too-familiar debate about the apparently intractable relationship between women, appearance and sex.

What the article in The Independent articulates is the impossibility of securing what constitutes child and, therefore, what is appropriate to it. The anxieties it is reporting are precisely about this problem – not that Penguin has got the cover wrong but the impossibility of ever getting it right.

The inability to secure what constitutes child is the same issue we encounter in trying to determine what the image, any image, is of.  The move to do this requires language, a supplementation to the image that is supposedly prior to it but that can only be constituted in language.  The discussion of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover insists that the book jacket should pin down the book – it should expound the truth of the book, the correct reading (and here the much-critiqued spectre of authorial intention raises its problematic head).

In turn the article about the book jacket ought to pin down the controversy.  That is, what the article (Facebook commentator or tweeter) sees is surely what we all see.  How could Penguin think this was a good idea if we can supposedly all see that it wasn’t?  And yet, it seems, we don’t all see the same thing when we look at the image.  What to one viewer is ‘creepy’ is, to another, an appropriate image.  #and what is more, what to one viewer is ‘creepy’ is to the same viewer, also ‘overly-sexualised’ and ‘doll-like’.  That is, one image is never one thing – we cannot fix what an image is of even when we are coming from what ought to be one perspective.

And this seems to me to be what is at stake here.  We can and will continue to argue about what constitutes an appropriate image of a female child and an appropriate book for a child but it is only through a critique of the binary that underpins these arguments – that there is a right child and a wrong child, a right outfit for the female body and a wrong one, a right book cover and a wrong book cover – and a thinking through of the problem of language – that it can never secure the real ‘thing’, that it threatens the very thing-ness we’re trying to secure – that we can ever get beyond name-calling, anxiety and a descent into tired and well-critiqued stereotypes of the female body.

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Dr Jessica Sage recently completed her PhD research on Charles Dodgson’s photographs and their criticism at the University of Reading.  She is also the  founder of the We The Humanities project (

Denham, Jess. ‘New Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory book cover sees Joanne Harris ask: ‘Why not get Rolf Harris to design one?’.  The Independent.  8 August 2014.  Web.  9 August 2014.

Derrida, Jacques.  The Truth in Painting.  Trans. by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Foucault, Michel.  ‘What is an Author?’ in Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader.  Ed. by David Lodge and Nigel Wood.  Harlow: Pearson Education, 2008: 281-93.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘The Uncanny’ in Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 17: An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works.  Trans. by James Strachey.  London: Vintage, 2001: 217-54.

Lesnik-Oberstein, Karín. Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, Or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.