Legendary author Roald Dahl (1916–1990) was, very literally, an idea man. He was forever jotting notes—kernels and tidbits that might one day grow into a story. To celebrate that creative process, on March 1, the Roald Dahl Literary Estate, Penguin Young Readers, and Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, alongside Langley Park Productions and Neal Street Productions, are kicking off Roald Dahl’s Imaginormous Challenge, an idea contest that encourages U.S. kids and their teachers not to imagine small, but “imaginormous,” and come up with their most inventive story ideas. Chocolatier Willy Wonka, featured in Dahl’s 1964 classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and its subsequent film adaptations, as well as the new Broadway musical, leads the Challenge as he seeks five new golden ticket winners from among the contest submissions.
Luke Kelly, managing director of the Roald Dahl Literary Estate, and Dahl’s grandson, explained what sparked the Challenge. “Much was written during last year’s centennial celebrations for my grandfather on how his stories came about,” Kelly said. “He had a number of Ideas Books in which he would write down the countless ideas that came to him. He would never let an idea get away. He once said that he wouldn’t pounce on an idea, but instead wait until the right moment to grab it and start sharpening his pencils.” Often, Kelly noted, those ideas would take years to grow into the stories that we recognize and love today. “At the Estate,” he said, “we felt that this approach to creativity could be harnessed to excite children across the U.S.: that no matter how small their story idea, they have the potential to turn it into something extraordinary—just like the seeds of my grandfather’s ideas. And so the Imaginormous Challenge was born.”
“We work very closely with the Estate,” said Jed Bennett, senior director, preschool and young readers marketing at Penguin Young Readers, “and one thing we are always talking about is how we can elevate Dahl’s name and brand in the U.S. so that schoolchildren will know about the wonderful books he created.” And, like Kelly, Bennett believes that Dahl’s creative methods are inspirational, a window for readers into his fictional world. “We are fascinated with his process,” Bennett said. “He jotted two or three words, or two or three sentences, or a drawing in his notebook. Many times these brief thoughts and doodles turned into the great stories we know and love now.” The initial idea for the contest was raised during a routine brainstorming session at Penguin Young Readers: “Wouldn’t it be great to share with kids that you don’t just sit down and write a novel—it all starts with an idea.”
The Challenge is patterned after the great contest in Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which five lucky children who find a golden ticket wrapped inside a Wonka candy bar win a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. In the Imaginormous update, Mr. Wonka is looking to award five new golden tickets, and, with the help of his friends and advisors—the Challenge partners—will select the five ticket recipients from among those children who submit story ideas. The five grand prize winners will receive a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “Wonka-fy” their story idea in a very big way:
• A Theatrical Creation: The team behind the Broadway musical Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which begins performances March 28 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, will turn one winning story idea into a theatrical creation.
• A Hollywood Pitch: One winner and their family will be flown to Hollywood to pitch their story idea to an executive at Warner Bros. Animation.
• An Immersive Minecraft World: A team of Minecraft gaming engineers will reimagine a winning story idea as a playable Minecraft experience.
• Become an Author: Author Adam Gidwitz (A Tale Dark and Grimm; The Inquisitor’s Tale) will pair up with one winner to develop their story idea into a short book.
• A Candy Creation: One winner’s idea will be turned into an edible creation—a 3-D printed piece of candy—with the help of the team at Dylan’s Candy Bar, the famous confectionary shop (which also sells candy-inspired lifestyle products) whose flagship store is in New York City.
Roald Dahl’s Imaginormous Challenge is open to children ages five-to-12 in the U.S. Contestants may submit their story ideas—no more than 100 words—between March 1 and May 31, 2017. Complete rules can be found here. And 2017 is only the initial year of the Challenge, which is planned to be an annual contest, though specific prizes or partners may change in the future. “The Imaginormous Challenge isn’t just a one-off program,” Kelly said. “This is being devised as an annual Challenge for U.S. schoolchildren, and our goal by 2020 is to have inspired one million new story ideas. Our central vision at the Estate is that one day, every child will unleash the extraordinary power of their imaginations through Roald Dahl’s stories.”
According to Bennett, Penguin Young Readers will do “the lion’s share” of the judging for contest entries, employing teams from editorial, marketing, and sales. “We have editors that have a keen eye and know what to look for in a good story,” he said. “This judging process gives the contest an air of legitimacy because the entries are essentially being reviewed by an editorial board.” The submitted entries will be whittled down to roughly 10–20 finalists per prize category, and then Penguin will work with the participating partners for each prize to select the five final winners who will receive Mr. Wonka’s tickets.
Author Gidwitz is enthusiastic about playing his part in the Challenge. “Roald Dahl is my favorite author to this day,” he said. “I always tell kids that when they ask me, and it’s true, that I’ve read Matilda 13 times and The BFG nine times. When Penguin asked me about this contest I said ‘I’ll participate in every event you’ve got!’ ” As for what he might look for in a winner, Gidwitz said he wants to keep an open mind. “I will not have any preconceived notions about what is good,” he said. “If you had told me about a story where all the action takes place in a chocolate factory with a crazy chocolate maker, I would have been mighty skeptical. So I’m not going into this with any notion about what a good story is. But if it makes me laugh and has good suspense, something like that could be a winner.”
Gidwitz has experience workshopping ideas with kids and believes that working with his prize winner will take a similar tack. “I’ll help them put some meat on the bones of their idea and then get their story out to the world,” he said. He imagines there will be no shortage of entries, especially with such an impressive list of prizes. “When I saw some of these prizes, like a Hollywood movie pitch, maybe I’ll be submitting some of my own stories under a pseudonym, maybe Timmy ‘Adam’ Gidwitz, age 10,” he joked.
Though plans are still in the works, Bennett anticipates announcing the five Challenge winners on June 14. The winning children will be visiting New York City August 4–6, where they will see the musical Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and go on a tour of places mentioned in Dahl’s books, as well as sites that Dahl frequented in the city. From August 7–10, the winners will travel to London (sponsored by Norwegian Air) and the nearby Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, located in the author’s home village of Great Missenden, among other things.
In addition to the story idea submissions from young readers, the Challenge contains key components to involve educators and parents in the fun. The Roald Dahl Literary Estate is teaming with Scholastic on a national campaign that will provide print materials to 160,000 teachers and four million classrooms, as well as provide digital outreach to 12 million parents, teachers, and children. The Estate will also partner with Penguin Young Readers to create teaching resources that align with the U.S. curriculum. “Everything is planted firmly and soundly in Dahl’s backlist, which will be woven throughout all our Challenge materials,” Bennett said. Additionally, Post-It, another key sponsor for the Challenge, is giving teachers the opportunity to win Post-It Brand educational materials, and teachers can also enter to win a Roald Dahl library of books valued at $500 from Penguin Young Readers.
“We take pride in breathing new life into books published 30, 40, 50, years ago,” Bennett noted of his company’s ongoing support of Dahl. “It’s an honor to be the steward of these stories for the next generation. And with a contest like this—to see your invention come to life as a candy from Dylan’s Candy Bar or as a Broadway performance—those are experiences money can’t buy. It’s ‘pure imagination’ in the words of Willy Wonka.”