“Books for Children”

This review was written by Karla Kuskin and printed in the March 10, 1973 edition of The Saturday Review.

When I was nine years old, seven of the nicest boys in the class liked me best on a scale of one to ten. When I was 13, nobody asked me to dance. Popularity is a mysterious business, and so is selling books. Sometimes quality and quantity sold do coincide; often they do not. Why a mediocre book becomes a best seller while an excellent one plummets to the bottom of the literary pond on the instant of publication, leaving not even a critical bubble, is a riddle fit for a sphinx. “Every generation is a secret society and has incommunicable enthusiasms, tastes, and interests which are a mystery both to its predecessors and to posterity,” said John Jay Chapman, the nineteenth-century essayist and critic. Maybe within that quote lies an answer to what Samuel Johnson called “the wild vicissitudes of taste.”

The three books reviewed here have, in their own ways, cracked the code of the public’s tastes. Babar Visits Another Planet by Laurent de Brunhoff (Random House, .$3.95) is the most recent in a series that has been delighting short crowds since the Thirties. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl (Knopf, $3.95) is the sequel, if not the equal, of its celebrated predecessor Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Knopf, $3.95). The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, illustrated by William Nicholson (Doubleday, $2.95), comes to the best-seller lists by a less direct route. It is an English book published half a century ago (although this fact is completely unacknowledged in the current Doubleday edition) and discovered in a leisurely fashion. At present it seems to be riding the crest of a recent wave of sentimental “philosophizing.” Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Macmillan, $4.95; boxed, $7.50; Avon paperback, $1.50) is skimming that very wave, along with a few other semisophisticated “fairy tales.” (Seagull has, in fact, now outsold Gone With the Wind in hardcover, and Avon has a first printing for its paperback edition of no less than 1,600,000 copies.)

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“The last time we saw Charlie, he was riding high above his hometown in the Great Glass Elevator.” That was in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which ended precisely where Roald Dahl’s new book begins. If you know that unusual child who has not read the first book about Charlie or James and the Giant Peach (Knopf, $3.95 each), which was Dahl’s first book for children, put them in his hands. The momentum of those two wonderful and entertaining books will carry him happily through this new one until a better Dahl dawns.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is divided into two parts that are related only by the presence of the Bucket-Wonka players, who appear in both. One section deals with a trip into space, a visit to the first American space hotel, and a confrontation with those slimy scourges of the universe, the Vermicious Knids. In a chapter titled “Something Nasty in the Elevators” (the Space Hotel elevators, that is), the Knids, who are able to twist themselves into whatever awful shapes they desire, spell out “SCRAM.” Charlie and friends scram and vanquish the Knids on their way back to earth. Part two has to do with the medicinal wonders Willie Wonka has concocted. “Wonka-Vite” is a brilliant yellow pill that makes one younger. The more you take, the younger you get. “VitaWonk” is an oily, black liquid that ages the taker. Throughout the book clever ideas pop on and off like light bulbs, but Dahl seems to have mislaid his discrimination. Puns that cause severe pain cuddle up with genuinely charming nonsense. There is real wit, poor verse, and a kind of w. c. humor that children will probably enjoy but their parents probably will not.

Toward the end of the book Grandma Georgina achieves the overly ripe age of 358 from too much “Vita-Wonk.” The antidote is 14 “Wonka-Vites.” They are administered, and she falls into a stupor, snapping awake every so often to cry out something lively, then succumbing once more as she travels back to her original age. There is a similarity between her behavior and Dahl’s. When he’s awake, everything is engaging and lively, but there are arid stretches where he seems to have fallen off from sheer boredom…