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Charlie versus the Mushroom Planet

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13 July 2012 by Ian Davis

Earlier today, during an extended twitter conversation on favourite books from childhood I tweeted the following:

That piqued my friends’ interests and so I followed up with an example of a book I have been trying to recall for a few years:

Literally minutes later I got two responses pointing to the book I so badly remembered from my childhood:

The book turned out to be called The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron and had been written in 1954 (I obviously read a much later reprint :) ). It turns out I had remembered the plotline fairly well considering I probably read it in the late seventies:

When two boys find a mysterious ad in a newspaper asking for two young boys to build a spaceship, they quickly construct one out of old tin and scrap wood, and bring it to the advertiser. This man is the mysterious Mr. Bass, a scientist living in an observatory who goes unnoticed by most of the townspeople for some reason. He shows the boys a previously undetected satellite of the earth, the eponymous planet, that can only be seen with a special filter he has concocted. He gives them some special fuel he invented to power their spaceship, and tells them to fly to the mushroom planet (after getting their parents’ permission). He warns them that their trip will only be successful if they bring a mascot.

When it is time for launch, they grab a hen at the last moment for a mascot, and rocket into space. They wake up on the mushroom planet, a small, verdant world covered in soft moss and tree size mushrooms. They quickly meet some residents of the mushroom planet, small men with large heads and slightly green skin, the cousins of the mysterious Mr. Bass. They tell the boys that their planet has had a crisis and everyone is slowly dying. The boys meet up with the king of the planet, the Great Ta, and end up solving the natives’ problem, before returning to Earth.

The mushroom people’s crisis was a lack of sulfur. They resolved this with their mascot hen, as chicken eggs have a high sulfur content.

It turns out that there are 5 further books in the series, so I’m thinking of hunting them down. As I was exploring around wikipedia I spotted that Eleanor Cameron was noted for having had a very public argument with Roald Dahl, criticising Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The letters that she, he and various others wrote are preserved on the web in the archives of Horn Book Magazine. Here’s their introduction to the furore:

In an article that began in October 1972 and continued in our next two issues, Eleanor Cameron criticized the theories of Marshall McLuhan, whose writings on media were much debated at the time, and decried what she saw as their expression in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Mr. McLuhan never responded, but Mr. Dahl fired back. So did many of our subscribers. Paul Heins, then editor, periodically refereed.

Her criticism was biting:

What I object to in Charlie is its phony presentation of poverty and its phony humor, which is based on punishment with overtones of sadism; its hypocrisy which is epitomized in its moral stuck like a marshmallow in a lump of fudge — that TV is horrible and hateful and time-wasting and that children should read good books instead, when in fact the book itself is like nothing so much as one of the more specious television shows. It reminds me of Cecil B. De Mille’s Biblical spectaculars, with plenty of blood and orgies and tortures to titillate the masses, while a prophet, for the sake of the religious section of the audience, stands on the edge of the crowd crying, “In the name of the Lord, thou shalt sin no more!”

Dahl responded to her criticisms in forthright style:

I would dearly like to see Mrs. Cameron trying to read Little Women, or Robinson Crusoe for that matter, to a class of today’s children. The lady is completely out of touch with reality. She would be howled out of the classroom. She also says, “I should like to travel up and down the country going to elementary schools and saying to all the teachers: Find out about the good children’s books.” I myself would like very much to hear what the teachers’ replies would be if the patronizing, all-knowing Mrs. Cameron ever tried to do this. The hundreds of letters I get every year from American teachers tell me that they are on the whole a marvelous lot of people with a wide knowledge of children’s books. It is an enormous conceit for Mrs. Cameron to think that her knowledge is greater than theirs or her taste more perfect.

However, her criticisim had a lasting effect, as she objected to the portrayal of the Oompa Loompas:

Brought directly from Africa, the Oompa-Loompas have never been given the opportunity of any life outside of the chocolate factory, so that it never occurs to them to protest the possibility of being used like squirrels.

This ultimately led to the revision of the US edition of the book, changing the depiction of Oompa Loompas from native African figures to more acceptable dwarves:

While researching this post I came across a good academic article on these changes: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory;Versions and Changes by Dominic Cheetham.

Amazing how an innocent memory of a childhood book can take you down a rabbit hole of controversy!

 

 

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