Happy 50th Birthday Charlie Bucket

Karen Hart

I’m 52 and it feels like the book has permeated much of my life over its 50 whipple-scrumptious years.

I saw a delicious tribute the other day at Waterstone’s Piccadilly:  an amazing creation of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, made with 200kg of sugar, by the awesome Biscuiteers. I loved the way it filled the window; for passers-by to press their noses against the glass much as Charlie does early in the book, 'his mouth watering like mad.'

The ginormous sweet factory struck a chord with me and brought back memories of first reading the book as an isolated kid, much like Charlie. Think of me now more like Augustus Gloop, channeling Proust's madeleine. Chocolate or industrial-size biscuit aside, I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than by reading it again. 

I have a sweet tooth to rival Dahl himself; my parents were wartime kids living with rationing and Dad in particular always saw sweets, especially chocolate, as the ultimate treat. I didn't grow up in in a house with books. There’d be one or two as Christmas or birthday gifts, usually from an auntie: either Mum's sister or a holder of the honorary title of all female neighbours and family friends back in the Dark Ages. 

The only other book-buying occasion came after a visit to the dentist. Drooling from a mouthful of fillings or extractions, I would be rewarded with, yes, a bag of sweets or bar of chocolate - and being allowed to choose a book. That's when I got my copy of Charlie and it's almost worth the dental horrorshow that is my teeth for the irony. Last weekend, I was back in exactly the same place as in the photo: me, at seven or eight, in bed. The wallpaper, bed and lamp have changed models but not their position and the same teddy bear is in the same place. It's where I read Charlie for the first time. 

On this, the nth time, the book was on a Kindle. I revel in Quentin Blake’s lines and curves that capture the characters with such simple elegance in today's illustrations. But the pictures of Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the rest of Dahl's world that still come to my mind were drawn by Michael Foreman: that was MY edition, which is sadly long lost.

It went on to be one of my comfort books, to be re-read when I need that unique blend of mordant humour and deft lightness of touch. When I was 14, I spent several weeks in an isolation hospital far from home. No books were allowed there and, when I came back, Charlie was one of the few stories I could face. I read it over and over, stuck in my bedroom for weeks, during a horrible time of being weak and helpless but satisfied at a happy ending which felt correct without being twee or unlikely.

I went back to it again, in the mid-80s, when I was one of a press pack trying to grab a word with Dahl at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court. He was a witness in defence of a young man accused of assaulting police. ‘Fangirl’ hadn’t been invented but I have to admit to my tough reporter facade being fairly lost for words at coming face to face with Charlie’s author. Or, more accurately, gazing up and up at him. I’m not sure I would be much different today but I don’t think my eight-year-old self would have been.

There’s another reason I feel a kinship with Dahl and Charlie, which sent me back to the Chocolate Factory in my early 30s. I discovered a Swedish birth family and spent time finding not only a new father (with an even greater love of chocolate) but also Dahl-loving half siblings who were reading Charlie to their children, and the dark forests, short days and pragmatism that I believe infuse writing rooted in a Scandinavian background.

In five drafts spanning four years, Dahl perfected a protagonist in Charlie Bucket who still speaks to me much as he did when I first met him. By the way, if you want to see those drafts, there’s a special archive tour on Sunday 15 June at the Roald Dahl Museum.

It’s part of Gloop’s Glumptious Weekend, which is unsurprisingly chocolate-focused. Oh, just typing the words ‘Gloops’s Glumptious Weekend ‘is ridiculously enjoyable. I wanted to try to write this in Dahl-style, with lots of fun invented words but gave up after about ten seconds. I don’t have the imagination or the humour and he’s already done it all anyway.

All those of us who love him, and the readers yet to meet Charlie Bucket, will make sure that he’ll be around for a lot longer than the next 50 years.

Happy Birthday, Charlie.

Karen Hart has written facts for a lifetime in journalism and public relations, from news updates at the aftermath of bombs to features on vanishing rural
crafts. Now she's writing a MG novel and working for herself, supported by her husband, teenage daughter and two cats. She divides her time between London, the seaside and seven Swedish half-siblings. 

She is a digital immigrant turned native, addicted to social media and running six Twitter accounts. Karen is the only volunteer on the Writeidea reading festival committee and a member of the Golden Egg academy. There are two YA manuscripts in her drawer.


  1. Lovely, Karen - your life with Charlie is a great illustration of how a loved book becomes a friend. Thank you.

  2. 'Would you like to read my post, YA-age-daughter?'
    'EW! It's your face, stuck on the head of a child! It's terrifying!'

  3. This brings the mordant humour and deft lightness out beautifully, Karen. Hope Charlie and Roald keep you delighted for many more years to come.

  4. For me this book represents the whole joy of reading I discovered as a child. What a fantastic story.


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