While a number of people and things that changed my life turn 50 this year, including Lucky Charms, Mary Poppins, Nicolas Cage, Arby’s, and Mariska Hargitay, only one, in my mind, deserves the completely unbridled homage I feel compelled to unleash on you right now: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Just over 20 years ago, at my Rock ‘n’ Roll–themed birthday party, I received a copy of the book, and, like Charlie with his golden ticket–filled chocolate bar, I was poised to devour it. In Dahl’s wild, 155-page fantasy, I found the adventure I’d been seeking, felt the pathos I hadn’t realized I possessed in my 10-year-old heart, and perhaps had my first encounter with literary irony. In short—and please forgive me—it was pure candy to my soul. Dahl dreamt up a rich tapestry of characters and gave me experiences that are etched into my brain for all time: like all readers I hated spoiled, entitled Veruca Salt, gluttonous Augustus Gloop, gum-smacking Violet Beauregarde, and vacant Mike Teavee; like all readers I was filled with love and admiration for humble, genuine Charlie Bucket and his self-sacrificing parents and grandparents, and I was alternately terrified of and enamoured with the oompa-loompas and eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka.
Though it probably goes without saying, I immediately followed up Charlie with its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, briefly grieved that Dahl never developed a third in the series, and quickly moved on to the rest of his equally fantastic body of work, pausing only—and begrudgingly—for meals and school days. Obviously, recess found me with my nose in James and the Giant Peach, or The BFG. And once I finished them all, I simply read them again. Along the way I’ve watched and rewatched all the movie adaptations of Dahl’s stories, and while I won’t take a stance on the Gene Wilder vs. Johnny Depp debate, I will say this: I have always preferred Pepsi to its Clear equivalent.
All of Dahl’s fascinating novels had layered narratives that transported me, made me keep the flashlight on under the covers far past 9 p.m., and, perhaps most importantly, had the ability to empower me, for Dahl considered his juvenile readers to be people deserving of complex plots and characters. So, not surprisingly, the dog-eared paperbacks are now lined up on my four-year-old Violet’s bookshelf (yes, Violet) as I anxiously await the next chapter of my childhood, when I can share my favorite author with her.
Happy half-century, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What are some book birthdays you’re celebrating this year?