Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Author: Ian Fleming
Illustrator: John Burningham
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: 1964
Lexile Level: 710
One of my favorite Dick Van Dyke movies of all time is the classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But I didn’t realize it was based on a book until I was working in a library. And not only is this a book, it was written by the creator of James Bond himself: Ian Fleming. Yes, Ian Fleming, whose work in World War II was the inspiration of many of Bond’s adventures, wrote a children’s book about a magical car. Actually, given the stuff Q came up with…a children’s book about an adventurous inventor makes sense. Maybe the first Q was actually Caractacus Potts.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the story of the Potts family: Commander Caractacus Potts, inventor and explorer; his wife Mimsie, and twins Jeremy and Jemima. After making money off of his latest invention (sweets that whistle) Commander Potts buys a wreck of a motorcar, and fixes it up. But the titular Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (so named for the noises she makes) is far more strange than the family anticipates. She proves to be quite intelligent (and a little bit magical) as she looks after her family. A trip to the beach turns into an epic adventure, complete with sea travel, gangsters, and explosions.
This book is amazing. It is clearly written to be read aloud—as a storyteller, it was actually hard to read this quietly to myself. Ian Fleming actually wrote it for his son, and it shows. This feels like a story to be read aloud at bedtime. Bonus points if you can pull off the accents (even badly). The book is never boring, even in sections where Fleming rambles a bit on the technical points of what’s happening. Throughout the story, Commander Potts encourages his family to think and come up with ideas of their own. At several points I was reminded of the Doctor from Doctor Who (and I have to wonder if this book didn’t inspire at least a few of the writers of the show). For example, he teaches his family to “Never say no to adventures. Always say yes. Otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”
Mimsie is the character who has the least amount of characterization, but even when she expresses concern, she is not made to look like a fuddy-duddy. Instead, she is painted as a typical mother—Fleming makes it clear that she’s only worried about her children’s safety, and that her feeling as perfectly natural. Jeremy and Jemima aren’t much better off, though we do see a few moments of cleverness and bravery from them. When kidnapped, they put their heads together and stay calm, coming up with a plan to save the day. Fleming balances them well—Jemima has clever ideas, and is not a helpless female as one might have expected from a story of this era. Jeremy is brave in the face of danger, but doesn’t become rash. They are very believable children.
This is an excellent recommendation for fans of Roald Dahl (especially with John Burningham’s illustrations). The illustrations are quite reminiscent of Dahl’s work. I would also recommend it to parents looking for a chapter book to read aloud or with their child. For fans of the movie, the first part of the book will be familiar enough that they should be comfortable once the gangster plot kicks in. Try to get the 50th anniversary edition if possible—it came out a few years ago, and it quite gorgeous—a fantastic addition to any collection.