Ian Fleming, the British author of the bestselling James Bond spy novels, was already a literary superstar when his first and only novel for children, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, was published in 1964. The story of a family’s adventures in a flying car is one that Fleming had often told his son Caspar at bedtime; a friend had suggested that the author craft the tale into a book while he was recuperating following a heart attack. Sadly, Fleming, who suffered from heart disease, died just two months shy of the title’s October 1964 release. Now, 50 years later, comes a special anniversary edition of the book from Candlewick, featuring the original illustrations by John Burningham.
“The story really starts with the three new Chitty sequels by Frank Cottrell Boyce,” said Hilary Van Dusen, senior editor at Candlewick. Several years ago, Cottrell Boyce had been contacted by the Fleming family and asked to pen a sequel. He was soon under contract to create a trilogy, the first installment of which, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, appeared in the U.K. (from Pan Macmillan) in late 2011. Candlewick was planning to publish the U.S. editions of the new titles beginning in 2012, but also wanted to publish the original novel. “We came up with the idea knowing that the 50th was on the horizon,” Van Dusen said. “We began investigating, trying to find the original text, checking with John on the availability of the art. It was all facilitated by the Fleming estate.”
Corinne Turner, managing director for Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., the publishing arm of Fleming’s estate, said all parties were enthusiastic about the project. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had gone out of print in the States, and we reverted the rights,” she explained. “Candlewick was doing a wonderful job with the new Chitty series by Frank Cottrell Boyce and wanted to be able to publish the original book as well. Candlewick talked to us about the anniversary edition when we first discussed them taking over the original Chitty. They publish other children’s books by John Burningham and we were all keen for them to produce a special hardback edition which would showcase his beautiful illustrations in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the book.”
The Candlewick anniversary edition uses an American text, according to Van Dusen, inspired by the oldest U.S. edition that could be found. “We had a musty mildewed copy that no one wanted at their desk – it smelled so awful!” she said. The original British text was also consulted, and “there were very few things we had to change,” Van Dusen noted, save for a fudge recipe that appears in the story.
Next came the art. And in what Van Dusen notes was a brilliant stroke of good fortune, Candlewick was going to have access to the original illustrations from that first 1964 edition. “We got in touch with John Burningham and his agent and learned that John still had all the original art in his studio,” said Van Dusen. The illustrator was happy to come on board for the anniversary edition and was closely involved in how things came together. He recalls how he got the Chitty illustration job back in the 1960s. “My first book that I did with [Jonathan] Cape in London, Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers, won the Kate Greenaway Medal,” he said. “The publishers asked me to do the Ian Fleming book and it was only the second job I’d ever done. Lots of things like this are luck, really, and it was a good piece of luck for me.”
The original version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was published in three volumes and Burningham had the opportunity to meet with the author as the illustrations progressed. “When you’re a young artist, taking on someone of his stature is a daunting task,” Burningham noted. “I saw him, and we went through the artwork together. He asked for only one small addition, which was to put a striped pole that tobacconists use into one of the pictures of Paris.”
Reflecting on the book’s newest incarnation, Burningham said, “What’s interesting about the 50th-anniversary edition is that it was ‘re-originated.’ The originals are quite valuable, so I don’t want to send them out. So somebody [a colleague from Candlewick’s British counterpart Walker Books, according to Van Dusen] came here and photographed the originals and made all-new plates. The artwork is better now than it was 50 years ago, because the techniques are so superior to what they were in the 1960s.”
Though printing technologies from the ’60s may seem archaic these days, Burningham was certainly ahead of his time when it came to the techniques he used to create his art back then. “I did some innovative things,” he said. “I decided that the best way of approaching it was to make a model of the car and photograph it. The art is a combination of photography and illustration. That was quite adventurous in 1963.”
Fleming did not live to see a finished copy of the book, but Burningham muses, “I think he must have been pleased. As the author, he was empowered to tell me to do it all over again. I’m glad he didn’t!” This thought reminded Burningham of a related anecdote. “I used to work in a basement in central London at that time,” he recalled. “When I did ABC, shortly after Chitty, I didn’t have enough wall space so I used to lay all the pieces on the floor. I went away, and when I came back, there had been a flood and my paintings were bobbing around in three inches of water! I’m so glad that didn’t happen to Chitty. That would have really been terrible.”
In addition to the “re-originated” art, the anniversary edition has a foil-accented cover, silver endpapers, and stamping on the book. And on the inside, “the design is fresh,” said Van Dusen, who hopes that the volume will appeal to both nostalgic and new readers. “Most kids know Chitty from the movie,” she said, “but I hope more people will read it and cherish it as it is. Having been involved with it, I love the book edition better. It’s an adventure that stars an entire family – a mother, a father, and two kids – which is unusual, and it’s just a really great story.”
Burningham concurred. “I think obviously things go in and out of fashion,” he said. “But if something’s a really good story with hopefully good illustrations, it will always be around. If it’s lasted 50 years, hopefully it will go on.”