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Review: ‘Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory’ by Lucy Mangan

Michael Foreman's rendering of Willy Wonka. (Michael Foreman/Michael Foreman)

By Lucy Mangan

Penguin. 213 pp. $19.99

Ten minutes inside the Chocolate Room — is that too much to ask?

Anyone who has dreamed of the chocolate waterfall and the meadows of mint sugar will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

A new book, “Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory,”offers readers a glimpse of archival material, including handwritten pages with Dahl’s edits and a description of the first draft, which saw Charlie Bucket getting inadvertently turned into a chocolate boy. (Dahl’s estate recently released a previously unpublished chapter that includes a visit to a Vanilla Fudge Room.)

"Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory: The Complete Story of Willy Wonka, the Golden Ticket, and Roald Dahl's Most Famous Creation" by Lucy Mangan (Puffin/Puffin)

The book opens with a charming forward by Roald Dahl’s granddaughter, Sophie Dahl, who as a child called him ‘Mold,’ because she couldn’t pronounce his name. Her grandfather, she writes, would play fanciful tricks such as writing the names of his children — and hers — on the lawn overnight with weed killer, claiming that fairies had done it. After dinner, he would bring out a red Tupperware container filled with Kit Kats, Aero and other delights. That red box became a childhood touchstone, she writes, the way Dahl’s books have been for children with less wonderful grandfathers. “We were partners in a quest for the ultimate bite,” she writes, both preferring their chocolate “straight.”

Dahl, who grew up in Wales in the ’20s, writes in his memoir, “Boy,” about the boxes he and his fellow boarding school students received from a candy manufacturer. Each had 12 sample bars of chocolate inside for them to rate. The taste tests, Dahl said, taught him candy didn’t just magically appear on shelves — someone had to invent it first.

Dahl started telling the stories about literature’s most inventive chocolatier to his own children. “Having read my children all the available books and come across some really crummy ones, I thought — why not try to write a children’s book?”

When “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was first published, reviews were mixed. While the New York Times found the book delightful, Horn Book wrote a vicious takedown, not just of the book, but of what the author claimed it said about Dahl’s own moral character.

“Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory,” by Lucy Mangan, a British journalist, offers a lighter take on Dahl. In a chatty tone — which relies on a few too many “whipple scrumptious”-es — she takes on the role of tour guide of the ever-expanding Wonka-verse. She assumes that readers share her adulation of the book. This is probably a safe bet — it’s unlikely that anyone but a die-hard Bucket-head, is going snatch it up — but she doesn’t offer much to draw in non-aficionados. Though the book is billed for teens, it seems most likely to attract Gen Xers nostalgic about the 1971 musical film starring Gene Wilder (which Dahl, sadly, disliked).

“Inside” capably gathers vignettes about the book’s many incarnations. In addition to the 1971 film and Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s fond but less memorable 2005 adaptation (which was so faithful it used actual squirrels in the Nut Room, Mangan writes), Charlie has unwrapped golden tickets everywhere from London’s West End to the opera. At this point, Charlie is so firmly embedded in the collective conscious that it has inspired everyone from video game designers to candy makers,rock bands and the writers of “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “30 Rock.” There was even a comedy show, “Willy Wonka Explained: The Veruca Salt Sessions,” starring Australian comic Matthew Hardy and Julie Dawn Cole, who played Veruca in the 1971 film.

The book isn’t quite an all-access pass — it works best when it sticks most closely to the story and its creator. I would have preferred far more about Dahl. Mangan doesn’t touch on his work as a spy during World War II, for example. Instead, she includes an encyclopedia-style entry on the origins of chocolate and its marketing, which feels mostly like filler, and the many forms of Wonka candy sold over the years.

Understandable but unneeded is her passionate defense of the book against the mid-century children’s reviewers who saw “Charlie” as harmful or sadistic. Much better is the chapter on the book’s various illustrators, such as Joseph Schindelman and Quentin Blake. The many variations on Oompa Loompas alone are eye-opening.

Mangan, who says she wasn’t allowed many sweets growing up, can be quite eloquent on the subject of both children’s books and chocolate. The things we love best as a child, she rightly points out, stay with us forever. It is its own kind of golden ticket.

Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.

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