Charlie and the Not-so-great Glass Elevator

Ronald Dahl’s follow-up to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might just be my children’s first experience of what a disappointing sequel looks like.

I really, truly enjoy reading bedtime stories to my kids.

Every night that I can, I read to them, and have done since they were all babies. The wife and I try our hardest to make sure they see that reading a book can be just as enjoyable as kicking a ball around the garden, building things with lego, or playing Minecraft on the iPad.

There’s also a part of me that likes making up voices, putting on a bit of an act, and generally watching my boys smile and laugh as they rub their eyes before going to sleep, and it’s also a great way to give my oldest the chance to flex his reading muscles and read along with me.

We have our favourites, which get rolled out every few nights – The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s ChildA Squash and a SqueezeDon’t Wake the Bear, Hare, and Do Not Enter the Monster Zoo are all stories that I’ve read through enough times that I can either recite them from memory or, at the very least, muddle my way through. The boys often refer to these as my “invisible books”.

Graduating to longer form books

My oldest is nearing the final term of his second year at infant school, and his reading prowess has come on in leaps and bounds. As he’s been getting better and better, we’ve graduated from the staple picture books and stories that he loves and started moving into what he sometimes refers to as “proper books”.

So, at the weekends, we usually go into stories that are a little more long-form and, after being given Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a Christmas present, it made sense to start with Roald Dahl. Sure enough, the boys loved the book so much that I’d be asked to carry on with the story instead of reading the shorter books and, once we finished the story, and the boys discovered that there was another story about Charlie to be had, we moved onto Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

After a rummage through my old book collection, I noticed that I didn’t own a copy, and so started telling the boys about the story from my memory, glossing over the details and avoiding any major plot points so as to avoid the spoilers. It’s worth repeating the exercise yourself, so stop reading for a second and have a think about what you remember about the book.

Go on. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll wait.

I’d told the boys that the story was about Charlie returning to the chocolate factory, the unintended diversion they’d taken to get there, the interesting characters that they met along the way, and the strange situations they found themselves in. All very vague, and quite intentionally so.

Of course, I’d also remembered more details – that much of the book was spent in space, with the space hotel, the astronauts, the Vermicious Knids, the return journey, arriving back at the chocolate factory, and the rescue of Charlie’s grandmother after having consumed too much Wonka-Vite.

The Vermicious Knids, giving a warning to Charlie and his companions

What I’d forgotten, however, was that the book was so dreadful.

The stereotypically disappointing sequel

I should point out that the boys enjoyed listening to the story, but reading it to them proved to be difficult because of the pace of the story and the contrived and convoluted ways in which Dahl’s plot unfolded. The boys definitely felt more engaged by the first book though, as much as I hope it didn’t, it is possible that my dislike of the unfolding sequel may have had an effect on the way I read it to them.

There were times when my oldest would interrupt the story at the end of a sentence to ask a question – something I actively encourage and enjoy as part of our reading experience – to help him understand what had just happened, or why a particular character had just done something.

Ordinarily, a storyline will unfolds in such a logical or, sometimes, perfectly unexpected sort of way that you don’t need an explanation, but during the course of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, I found that there were so many interruptions and questions that it felt as though the story hadn’t been crafted with as much care and attention as Dahl’s other stories.

“Why did Grandma Josephine pull Mr Wonka away from the controls, Daddy, after he’d just told everyone that he needed to watch things very carefully?” was the first of the questions, on page 19. We discussed various reasons, and while Noah thought that being in space floating miles above the earth would be lots of fun, he also thought that some people might feel scared. “Not me though, Daddy,” he was quick to add.

The questions continued and it’s fair to say that some were genuinely good, helping him to understand more about things that were referenced, but the scrunched-up look of confusion on his face reflected that many of the questions were more to do with him not understanding why events had unfolded in the manner in which they had.

Was it bad on purpose?

And, of course, from that point on, everything became more and more unraveled. The pun-laden President of the United States of America, the seventies-era racial stereotypes (Chinese Premier How-Yu-Bin, anyone?) and the chapters that seemed to ramble on without adding anything to the story.

The puns came thick and fast, most of which failed to elicit a question, let alone a response from the boys. The writing felt phoned-in, and the editing was as close as possible to non-existent: whoever edited utterly failed to point out just how bad the whole thing was.

For an author who wasn’t afraid to treat his readers like adults, and who pulled very few punches in his other stories, something didn’t quite feel right. Perhaps, and this is complete conjecture, it was dreadful on purpose.

Dahl is known to have disliked the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder as the titular character, so perhaps the sequel was so contrived, so manic, and set in such exotic locations to dissuade filmmakers from even considering making another film about Charlie’s adventures.

We finished the story and closed the book, and my oldest frowned slightly and looked at me. “Is there another book about Charlie, daddy?” With the boys being used to having lots of stories about other characters we’ve read about, it felt like an obvious question to ask.

“No, darling. Roald Dahl didn’t write any more stories about Charlie. But,” I added, with a far more optimistic tone than I’d used throughout the reading of the story, “he did write plenty of other good books about other people.”

“That’s a shame,” was the reply. “I liked the first story about Charlie better.” The frown melted away before he put his head on the pillow, yawned and thought for a second.

“What story can we read next?”

Thankfully, Dahl went on to write some of the best books of my childhood, including Danny, Champion of the WorldThe WitchesMatilda and, our most recent read, The BFG. I’m happy to say that the boys loved it.

Which is just as well – it’s my favourite too.