Ian Fleming is best known, of course, as the creator of superspy James Bond. And while his gadgets are fantastic (and beloved by geeks), the Bond movies aren’t really family-friendly fare with the violence and innuendo. But Fleming also wrote a book for kids: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; The Magical Car, which was later adapted into a movie (by Roald Dahl, among other people) starring Dick Van Dyke … and that’s the version of this magical car that most people know.
I was no different: I saw the movie as a kid, and I’ve watched it with my own kids. I knew (from the movie credits) that it was based on a book by Fleming, but I never got around to reading the book myself. Then I got a copy of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, a new book by Frank Cottrell Boyce, approved by the Ian Fleming Estate. In the Author’s Note at the back (which I read first), Boyce mentions his experience seeing the movie for the first time, and then getting the book so he could immerse himself in the story again — only to find that it was quite different! I decided that I really needed to read the original before diving into the new book.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang heralded a new era for my daughters and me: shared storytime. My wife and I have been reading aloud to our daughters since they were born, and we fell into the habit of “two stories before bed.” We’ve had to miss on occasion (so I can’t compete with Alice Ozma) but for the most part each daughter gets two stories every night. Well, that’s a much longer proposition when your kids move from picture books to chapter books, and sometimes we were spending well over half an hour reading stories before bedtime. Fun, to be sure, but it can be a bit of a time crunch when you’re trying to do all the other bedtime stuff. So I suggested to my kids that they might both enjoy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which we found at the library. We read it (and the new sequel) together.
Like the movie, the original book does feature a wacky inventor named Caractacus Pott, and two twins named Jeremy and Jemima. And there is whistling candy and a Lord Skrumshus (“Scrumptious” in the movie) the candy tycoon. But there is no Truly Scrumptious (the love interest), because Mr. Pott’s wife Mimsie is still very much alive. And there is no Vulgaria and no Baron Bomburst and no land where children have been banned. In fact, I was most surprised at how much shorter the book seemed than the movie: the Potts buy an old beat-up car from a once-famous racing driver and fix it up, and it turns out that the car seems to have a mind of its own.
As in the movie, the car has some secrets, allowing it to fly and float, and the Pott family has some adventures traveling to France and foiling Joe the Monster, the biggest crook in England. The way Fleming tells the tale, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is almost sentient. She seems to signal to the family, or stop driving before she hits a booby trap … but maybe it was just some electrical short, some little coincidence that made things work a certain way. At other times, though, it’s clear that Chitty is giving the Potts commands, as when a particular knob flashes and says “PULL!” … and when they wonder about it, the text changes to “PULL IDIOT!” (Never mind that missing comma.)
My kids loved the original, even the somewhat creepy bits involving Joe the Monster and his gang, and it was fun to see what solutions would pop out of Chitty next. The Potts were great characters in their own right: when the kids get kidnapped they come up with some clever plans to foil the crooks. Oh, and the book even ends with an actual recipe for Monsieur Bon-Bon’s Secret “Fooj” (fudge).
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the sequel exactly, except that it was clearly not quite the same vehicle on the cover. Indeed, the new version starts off with a totally new family, the Tooting family: Dad and Mum and Lucy and Jem (short for Jeremy) and Little Harry. When Dad loses his job at Very Small Parts for Very Big Machines and starts going a little overboard with his “home improvements,” Mum hits upon a brilliant solution: she brings home a beat-up 1966 camper van for him to fix — thinking that it’ll be impossible, thus keeping Dad occupied and out of everyone’s hair.
But he does in fact get it running. When Dad and Jem stop by a junkyard looking for some replacement parts, they discover an enormous old engine and Dad decides that it would fit the van, so they shove it in. And then the adventures start. As the Tooting family takes off for a grand vacation — Paris, Cairo, maybe some lost cities — it turns out the van has some ideas of its own. Chitty’s heart (or engine, at least) has a new body, but she’s interested in finding her old parts and pulling herself together again.
The sequel does a fine job of playing with the original concepts while bringing it into modern times. This is great, because the original (written in 1964) is a little dated and you may have to explain some concepts to your kids. Jem expects a vehicle to have four-wheel drive, satnav, super de-icers, and the family relies on GPS and cell phones and the like — things kids today will readily understand. As they travel the world and begin to piece Chitty back together, though, the whole family begins to realize that maybe new and modern isn’t always the best.
The characters in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again are terrific. The parents are wonderfully funny — Dad is dreadfully annoying to his kids, but he means well; Mum has a good head on her shoulders and is great at handling Dad. Lucy, the angsty teen, paints her room black and likes tragic stories, but you learn not to underestimate her. Jem is the one who learns to understand Chitty the best. Little Harry, though just a baby, does play an important role as well. And there are others, too — of course there’s a villain (though I won’t spoil the surprise) and there are various links throughout back to the original book.
My kids thoroughly enjoyed the sequel as well, my eight-year-old especially. They both put up with my horrible British accent (the Tootings are from England, of course) through the entire book. (Oh, and I should mention that reading about an amazing 1966 camper van made me want one of those Lego VW vans even more.)
The ending is wide open for another sequel: part of me wishes it had just concluded with some solid ending, but I can see how Chitty is a car that begs for more stories. I don’t know if there will be more in the future, but you can be sure that my kids and I will be along for the ride.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again.