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Letters to the Editor, 1973 | Responses to Cameron vs. Dahl

Eleanor Cameron and Roald Dahl

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.


Letters to the Editor

From The Horn Book Magazine, February 1973

Thank you for incorporating in your magazine the much-needed articles about children’s literature in England. Having taught in both the U. S. and England, I, too, have long deplored the lack of cognizance concerning authors and books on the part of teachers in both countries.

And at long last, I found on reading Eleanor Cameron’s fine article in the October issue that there is someone else who agrees with my opinion of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!

As always, I open the Horn Book with a feeling of Christmas — so many wonderful new books are set before me, and I know I’ll be adding to my long “must read” list. Thank you again for an evening of pure joy!

MARY WADSWORTH SUCHER
Baltimore, Maryland


Horn Book continues to be the most provocative magazine around for children’s books. The reviews do justice to the hard work of writing books (printed, of course, on the best paper ever). And compliments to Eleanor Cameron for such intelligent writing and criticism.

VIRGINIA HAMILTON
Yellow Springs, Ohio


McLuhan, Youth, and Literature” touched off youthful pyrotechnics at the Wellesley Free Library. After absorbing a summarization of Eleanor Cameron’s recent article in Horn Book, spirited fifth and sixth graders responded with considerable heat and light.

These kids were unanimously aghast at the mere possibility of the Death of the Book. It was a real challenge to play devil’s (McLuhan’s) advocate in the face of such dedicated opposition. Individual and group outbursts established the facts that TV was boring and kids who like TV are stupid. More specifically, it was agreed that TV shows are fake situations. “But,” I countered innocently, “can’t books be imaginary or fake?”

“Yes. But with books you make it your own way and imagine your own pictures.”

These avid readers further clarified their feeling by asserting that kids who watched TV were just like apes. All TV requires is staring at the screen. In books, you can go back and read stuff again. Words won’t move across the page if your mother yells at you to clean up your room in the middle of a chapter. The kids acknowledged that some people like to see a total story from beginning to end, the total sequence all in one sitting like the average TV show. But the kids think books are better because you can make them suspenseful. You can stop reading any place you want and just think. Or you can keep reading.

I asked what they would schedule if they planned TV shows. The library reverberated with their shout of “Book Reviews!” It was agreed that TV was a major topic of conversation among their classmates. I asked how they accounted for their ignorance when the shows were discussed. The consensus was that reading was a personal thing. If a friend asks why you missed a show, you usually just say you were busy.

In a last devil’s advocate attempt, I asked if they could see McLuhan’s point at all. Could they recognize that they were a minority and that reading was too slow and too much trouble for the majority of people. No, that wasn’t a valid point because people were always learning to read faster.

I asked where we could possibly keep the millions and millions of books that would collect, and suggested that books would have to become obsolete as there wouldn’t be enough space for them. Even that pessimistic view failed to daunt the stalwart readers. Several solutions were offered. The most innovative outlined plans for a library on the moon for book storage. Rockets traveling back and forth could exchange batches of books.

To these children, at least, the conception of a book depository on the moon is no more fantastic than McLuhan’s conception of no books at all.

Thank you, Ms. Cameron, for inciting this most reassuring riot.

FRAN HAWK
Assistant Children’s Librarian
Wellesley Free Library
Wellesley, Massachusett


From The Horn Book Magazine, April 1973

Eleanor Cameron’s remarks on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the Horn Book may draw some fire upon her; it’s always perilous to do anything to a bestseller but adulate it. My response to her October article is one of relief and hearty thanks. It is good to have an accurate diagnosis of one’s vague feelings of unease, and to find that somebody else — especially a gentle and perceptive critic — has been feeling a bit queasy too.

That Mr. Dahl’s books have a very powerful effect on children is evident. Kids between 8 and 11 seem to be truly fascinated by them; one of mine used to finish Charlie and then start it right over from the beginning (she was subject to these fits for about two months at age 11). She was like one possessed while reading it, and for a while after reading she was, for a usually amiable child, quite nasty. Apparently the books, with their wish-fulfillment, their slam-bang action, and their ethical crassness, provide a genuine escape experience, a tiny psychological fugue, very like that provided by comic books.

Perhaps we all need an escape vent now and then, whether it’s Charlie, whisky, Goldfinger, or righteous indignation. Anyhow, kids are very tough. What they find for themselves they should be able to read for themselves. But I boggle at the thought of an adult-parent, librarian, or teacher — actually sitting down to read such a book to children. What on earth for? To teach them to be good “consumers”? The idea of education is a leading forth, isn’t it? — not a stuffing with endless candy, on the model of Mr. Dahl’s factory.

URSULA K. LE GUIN
Portland, Oregon


 

Hurray, Roald Dahl for getting to the crux of the matter in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: A Reply.

As an elementary librarian, I have the joy of working with boys and girls whose background and early childhood experiences lead them easily into the world of the classics. Our teachers and I merely expose these delightful children to the best available and can take little credit for their literary development.

However, the real satisfaction in my work comes from developing reluctant readers into eager ones.

I’ve often blessed such authors as Mr. Dahl, Beverly Cleary, Robert Farley, and yes, even Franklin Dixon. These people with insight into what turns a youngster on have aided those of us who deal daily with children in “hooking” readers — especially boys. Once you have a child’s attention, then you might lead him in diverse and challenging directions.

Children of all abilities and backgrounds love Charlie and James and the Giant Peach. Such books are the kind of reading that lure boys and girls into the library habit. So please, Roald Dahl, keep it coming!

MARIA L. BRENTON
Valatie, New York

P.S. In reaction to the “In Protest” editorial, I concur completely, Mr. Heins. It was a stupid way for someone to protest. This is especially true since Horn Book fulfills high ideals of journalism and presents many viewpoints, giving guidance to those of us who have come to depend upon it.


 

I feel that Mr. Dahl did not have to defend himself (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: A Reply, February Horn Book) if he really believed in his worth as an author. He did not have to emphasize the good traits of his life to prove that he was a capable writer. Criticism will come and go, and it perhaps would have been wiser if Mr. Dahl had left his background behind him and simply upheld his book as a true statement.

CATHRINE CRUPKO
Stow-on-the-Wold, Michigan


 

From The Horn Book Magazine, June 1973

As an elementary school librarian who is very much involved every day in reading and telling stories to children as well as helping them to select books to read for themselves, I must take exception to Mrs. Cameron’s assessment of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the criticism of which I feel is both heavy-handed and unfair. Charlie is fantasy, a modern fairy tale.

As such, it should not be exhorted to weigh itself down with the woes of the real world. It bears no responsibility for in-depth character development, any more than The Phantom Tollbooth or Alice in Wonderland do. These are fantasies that rely more upon verbal wit, imagination, and action than upon characterization to carry them off. We need not spend any more time agonizing over the exploitation of the Oompa-Loompas than we do over that of the poor peasantry in fairy tales. To my mind, the only valid objection Mrs. Cameron raises is the one concerning the origins and characteristics of the Oompa-Loompas as first depicted in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964. She will undoubtedly be pleased to learn, as I was, that this objection has been heeded and acted upon in a new 1973 printing of the book. In this edition, the Oompa-Loompas are little men with long hair who come from Loompaland and bear no resemblance to any known racial group.

Apart from her criticism of his book, Mr. Dahl has good reason for”protesting” Mrs. Cameron’s article. In reading over her October essay several times, I am surprised to find that it does indeed appear as if she is making negative insinuations concerning his personal character based solely upon her low opinion of his book. Unfortunately, this is an emotional approach lacking in substance, fairness, and veracity. I’d “protest” too!

As for another of her statements, I am not overly thrilled by Mrs. Cameron’s assumption that those of us who are reading Charlie to children have no idea what we might be reading to them instead. Nonsense! I introduce my students to a wide variety of titles every year including several that Mrs. Cameron mentions. I also recommend Charlie and James and the Giant Peach and other Dahl titles. There’s no reason why we can’t enjoy them all. Each one brings to us something special in its own way; particularly those tales of fantasy, which help children to appreciate the magic of an imagination set free. As Eleanor Cameron herself says of fantasy, it is “a little pool of magic” existing within the every day world and “possessing a strange, private, yet quite powerful and convincing reality of its own.” (See her The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children’s Books. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969, p. 17.) This to me describes many delightful works of fantasy, of which Charlie is one. Children recognize this magical quality immediately and take Charlie into their hearts without hesitation. He bubbles over with good humor (a valued commodity in children’s literature and always in short supply). While other “classics” become “dustcatchers” you will seldom, if ever, find Charlie sitting on the shelf. Mr. Dahl is right when he points out that many of the titles we cling to so tenaciously as exemplifying the best in children’s literature have had their hour and are now of interest to only a limited few who will read them.

As self-appointed caretakers of children’s books, we adults in the field are apt to assume that youngsters, left alone, will never discover and learn to appreciate works of quality or enchantment and that they need us to guide them out of the wasteland of mediocre reading materials through which they seem content to wander. This is, I fear, an unfortunate exaggeration on our part. Children themselves are not devoid of taste and judgment and to assume so is to do them a great disservice. Yet, when they embrace a book we do not fully appreciate ourselves, we merely point to that as further evidence of their own inability to select wisely. We hate to admit, until many years later, that they might have uncovered a gem we passed over. By no means are children incapable of making strong literary judgments. They do it all the time and it’s about time we began to listen to them. They have chosen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, like it or not, they will keep him no matter what adult literary arbiters have to say.

MRS. ELLEN CHAMBERLAIN
Librarian, Waylee Elementary School
Portage, Michigan


The author’s reply to Mrs. Eleanor Cameron’s reviews of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a most vindictive piece of writing. There must be hundreds — yea, thousands — who will agree there are better books (than his) to read aloud to students.

Methinks the author protesteth too much!

RUTH OLIVER
San Jacinto Elementary School Library
Galveston, Texas


“A book about a giant peach” — several years ago a book appeared among other new titles at the local public library (Los Gatos, California). Children began asking for the book, librarians had to put it on a “hold list,” and parents wanted to buy copies from the local book store. The title was stocked on request. Teachers heard about the story from children.

How difficult it is to get children to want to read, and how rare to find books children want to read with no encouragement from adults. Both James and Charlie became popular without encouragement from adults. It was spontaneous. Children began to ask for these titles, and they were supplied because of popular demand. This is something of a phenomena; books that can attract young readers on their own merits. Of course they have been read by teachers and popularized, but it was started by spontaneous popular demand. How many children’s books have this distinction?

There is no reason to stop reading these books just because children like them. Educators and children, too, do not stop with just these titles. They do go on to read other books — lots of them. However, the readers — children — should be respected and should be allowed to read books they like. The popularity of Charlie and James may not last forever, but there is a quality in them that should be considered with esteem.

Mrs. Cameron’s critiques are thought provoking, but she must not be working directly with children, and is therefore missing a significant point. Those who work directly with children understand this missing point. Also no child, teacher, or parent reads just Dahl books and no others. They do read many books. The criticisms of the Dahl books are not a totally realistic picture of the situation.

Comments about the Dahl books:

From teachers: “Do you have anything else that will hold their attention as well . . . ?”

From children about Charlie:

“The songs are fun to read”
“All kinds of things in it”
“Charlie is a poor boy . . .”
“It’s about chocolate”
“Nothing else like it . . . fun to read along”
“It’s a combination of things . . . ”

Possibly there is a mystique here — and if Mr. Dahl knows the answer to this popular readability — then please use this talent to tell more original and creative stories that will “Hold their attention as well . . . ”

Added information: a few other titles often requested

Sounder
Are You There God — It’s Me, Margaret
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Summer of the Swans
Diary of Anne Frank
Biography of Joe Namath
Peanuts
Charlotte’s Web

Books by Beverly Cleary, Dr. Seuss, and P. D. Eastman

You see how it is — children like variety and do accept quality books, too.

MRS. PHYLLIS SCHWEITZER
Elementary School Librarian
Coalinga, California


Well, well . . . it seems the fires of controversy are raging? But, please, not over who is the more perfect parent.

Objectivity and modesty are not the primary virtues of either Eleanor Cameron or Roald Dahl. On the whole I admire Mrs. Cameron’s critical work, and have used her book, The Green and Burning Tree, as a text in a graduate course in Children’s Literature, and will use it again. Nevertheless, I find that she does habitually use an irritating device — especially noticeable when one reads her criticism closely — of setting up a straw figure and beating the daylights out of it. It is a serious flaw and one she ought to have been aware of. It is such pontifical belligerence which tends to obscure her often brilliant insights because of the intense heat and light directed against a minor adversary.

What difference does it make if children read and enjoy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Personally I think it represents a relatively low order of creative imagination; but children read and like it, and a good teacher will find that useful. A good teacher will latch onto a child’s interest in and enthusiasm for this book and lead him on to more amusing, more engrossing, more totally committing fantasies. A book which delights a child, which hooks him, should not be regarded as an end, but a beginning.

Roald Dahl, too, seems blind to the possibility of progress, and rather pompous in his self-praise. No doubt his 5,000 bedtime stories were entertaining and an act of love. But I can’t help thinking of how much more he could have done for his children by introducing them to the works of other writers. It doesn’t take a seer to pronounce that objective editing might have found some of the five thousand inferior to Charlotte’s WebThe Wind in the WillowsThe Book of ThreeHalf MagicThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the list of fantasies which might have been included here is necessarily abridged) — all of which, Mr. Dahl should be informed, children do read and love.

MARION CARR
State University College at Buffalo
Buffalo, New York


Let me add my congratulations to the many you must have received for your editorial in the February issue. Your last sentence was a beauty. Too bad, for Dahl, that somebody in authority didn’t tell him to omit his parenthetical sneer: “I had not heard of her [Mrs. Cameron] until now.” After that, there was no point in his telling what a fine and well publicized family the Dahls were.

Will he now write a reply to Doris Bass of Random House, et al., whose letter in School Library Journal was an astonishing concession? I wonder how often a published book has ever been censored to suit the liberal rather than the reactionary mind.

ALEXANDER L. CROSBY
Quakertown, Pennsylvania


After reading Ms. Cameron’s article, “McLuhan, Youth, and Literature”: Part III, in the 2/73 issue of Horn Book, I was compelled to respond to her accusations re: the faults of the current teen-age novel.

First, may I say that I agree with Ms. Cameron, to a point: many YA novels are haphazardly constructed and poorly written; the characterizations are, at times, weak. However, a number of authors, writing primarily for the group in question, have produced some excellent works of fiction: Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and Then Again Maybe I Won’t; Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger and The Pigman. The list is a good deal longer, but rather than enumerate any further, allow me to discuss some aspects of the article with which I found fault.

The author’s comparison of the various uses of idiom/slang/nonstandard English is, at best, inconsistent; at worst, prejudiced. I respect her right to air her opinion, but whether that opinion is pro or con, it should be logical. I fail to understand the difference between the use of idiom in His Own Where, which the author condones, and the use of slang in contemporary teen-age fiction, which the author condemns. If nonstandard English indicates regional flavor, insight into an ethnic, racial, or religious group, and/or character traits, does not teen-age slang represent these also? Is language not a product of the times? Is not literature a vehicle of language and vice versa? Every book, no matter how poorly written, no matter how it succeeds or fails to succeed in its purpose, whether that purpose is overt or inferred, is a product of the culture from which it stems. Each slice of life, regardless of how inaccurate it may seem to the reader, is valid to the author. In short, everyone has the right to produce a poor novel; the choice of reading it or not is up to the individual.

In basic philosophical terms, nothing can exist without its opposite. If there were no badly written books, how could we recognize the “good” ones? Without this comparison, how could we, in Ms. Cameron’s words,

educate the ear, give it a chance to become fine-tuned, expand its experience of word play, or provide the reader any opportunity to reach into subtle cornprehensions or to grow aesthetically.

I do not fancy myself a champion of YA fiction, but I do maintain that some “good” teen-age fiction is being written today, and even those book which fall below the pseudo-standards of this nebulously defined genre have a merit, however circuitous, of their own. If I champion any cause, that cause is the freedom to read, to read anything.

All literary criticism is opinion, some more educated than others, but opinion nonetheless, and I cannot sit idly back while a person of Ms. Cameron’s influence pontificates from her mid-Victorian dais. The making of value judgments is a function of day-to-day living, but we all must learn to make them for ourselves.

I suggest Ms. Cameron read, or re-read, Joan Aiken’s article in Children’s Literature in Education, 11/72. Ms. Aiken states among many other salient points, that your language must suit your purpose. Read on, Ms. Cameron.

In conclusion, may I say that I read with fiendish glee Ms. Cameron’s self-satisfied definition of the purpose of literature. Greater minds than ours, Eleanor, have wrestled with this issue for centuries. May I suggest that you re-evaluate your definition and your standards of judging, if judge you must, today’s young adult fiction. . . .

C. M. KLEIN, B.A., M.L.S.
New Milford, Connecticut


I read with considerable interest Eleanor Cameron’s “McLuhan, Youth, and Literature.” Although Mrs. Cameron’s criticisms were generally good, she did go too far, and Roald Dahl was justified in taking exception to her statement “. . . three kinds of goodness in fiction . . . the goodness of the writer himself, his worth as a human being. And his worth is always mercilessly revealed in his writing,” and the implications that follow.

I do not know Mr. Dahl personally, but he is a public figure about whom much has been written, and there can be no doubt about his worth as a human being.

On the other hand, Mrs. Cameron refers to the early influence of Shakespeare’s works on young Dylan Thomas and never questions the worth of Shakespeare as a person.

Certainly, we all should strive for a more evolved state of personal development. But how do we determine where worthiness begins? Does it commence only when we have attained total evolvement? Do we wait to produce until we reach absolute spiritual evolution? If we wait until that time, my friend, NOTHING would ever be written OR produced. We would be totally denying our reason for existence. So impossible would it be that we would be discouraged from even trying to do anything — much less our best. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are ALL worthwhile — at least in the eyes of God — for we are ALL children of his creation.

And I do agree with Mr. Dahl that Mrs. Cameron “would be howled out of the classroom” if she tried reading aloud to a class of today’s children such “classics” as Little Women.

In the February issue of The Horn Book you found it necessary to print on page 15 an item titled “In Protest” You defended yourselves inappropriately for having printed Mrs. Cameron’s article. You, too, revealed emotionalism — just as surely as the person who ripped out the pages of The Horn Book and sent them to you “in protest” graffiti not withstanding. You did indeed take advantage of your position, assumed the airs of an authority, and revealed an attitude of righteous indignation as well as other emotions we reserve for when we are “dead wrong.” You at The Horn Book should have questioned Mrs. Cameron’s statement before printing it rather than defending it, or at least added your own footnote “view of the author’s only.”. . .

BETTI JOHNSON
Ann Arbor, Michigan


 

In a critical journal, like The Horn Book Magazine, it is not necessary for the editor to defend the publishing of an article dealing with the literary criticism of children’s books. Nor is it necessary to add in a footnote “view of the author’s only.” A critical journal tries to present varying points of view and cannot afford to indulge in imprimaturs. For example, “Children’s Books: A Canadian’s View of the Current American Scene” by Sheila Egoff (Horn Book, April 1970) presented a personal point of view that did not necessarily reflect the Horn Book point of view. But it was certainly an article worth reading and thinking about. PAUL HEINS


From The Horn Book Magazine, August 1973

When I read in the Crier that Eleanor Cameron was going to reply to Roald Dahl’s defense of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I could hardly wait for the April issue of the Horn Book to arrive. I was not disappointed. Eleanor Cameron’s reply to Dahl was perfect and important. Her point that people, who are concerned about children’s literature and reading, “must think about a book as well as have feelings about it” if we are to consider what they say as criticism, is too often glossed over in children’s literature courses or language arts courses that deal with children’s books. Utilitarian and “gut level” reactions are all too easy and common. Many children’s literature students would much rather give spontaneous, narrow opinions and plot summaries of books than to ask themselves the hard questions that literary criticism demands.

Blessings on Eleanor Cameron for her succinctly eloquent response to Mr. Dahl and on all people who refuse to think of children’s books as textbooks or “feelies.”

Thank you Horn Book. Thank you Eleanor Cameron.

J. M. BINGHAM
Assistant Professor
Oakland University
Rochester, Michigan


From The Horn Book Magazine, October 1973

Congratulations to Horn Book for providing a forum where people involved with children have had an opportunity to explore and debate values and ideas concerning children’s literature. I’ve been fascinated by the many shades of opinion expressed in the Letters to the Editor vis-a-vis the Cameron-Dahl positions and had no intention of entering the tournament until I read the letter from Alexander Crosby which refers to a letter I wrote to School Library Journal. I feel that I must enlighten Mr. Crosby and others who read his letter concerning the decision to revise Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In the first place, my SLJ letter specifically states that it was Mr. Dahl, his editors and publisher who “shared the concern expressed,” and Mr. Dahl who made the revisions; therefore to ask “will he now write a letter to Doris Bass” seems either a factious thrust or an indication that my letter was read-in-to, not read.

Secondly, I take exception to Mr. Crosby’s choice of words in his next sentence. The decision to revise was neither “censorship” nor was it done to suit the “liberal” or “reactionary” mind. To be sensitive and responsive to the changes in consciousness over the past decade isn’t liberal or reactionary (terms which have primarily political connotations) nor is it censorship. It’s just trying to be “good people” as one’s own awareness of other people’s feelings and needs is expanded.

Thirdly, I’d like to comment on Mr. Crosby’s rather dramatic image of publishing decisions. We here at Random House, Pantheon and Knopf never considered the forthcoming revision “an astonishing concession.”

It was accomplished with the same attitudes and judgments that determine when any book should be put out of print or revised because it no longer accurately reflects current thinking.

I love emotionally charged words — they make good reading and greatly enhance 100-word book annotations. The danger arises when they distort the truth, and Mr. Dahl’s relationship with his editor and publisher should not be impugned in order to score points.

DORIS BASS
Director, Department of Library Services Random House, Alfred A. Knopf,
Pantheon Books
New York, New York

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