We didn't read "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" when my kids were young. I thought we had, but my daughter recently set me straight. "We saw the movie," she told me, with a teenage eye-roll, when I asked what she remembered about the book.
That, I understand now, was an oversight, because "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is a terrific kid's adventure. The story of an unconventional inventor, Commander Caractacus Pott, and the magical car he and his family rescue from "a broken-down little garage," it is playful and yet full of suspense.
None of this should be surprising, given that its author, Ian Fleming, is the creator of James Bond. Written in the early 1960s, while he was recovering from a heart attack, the book is based on bedtime stories he told his young son Caspar; it was released in the fall of 1964, two months after Fleming's death.
Now, to commemorate the half a century since its publication, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (Candlewick: 170 pp., $22) is back in a 50th anniversary edition, featuring the original illustrations by John Burningham. These alone are worth the price of admission: rough-hewn, slightly outsized, with a vivid and peculiar grace.
In one, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang leaps across a two-page spread, flying over the English countryside; in another, it chugs through the waters of the English Channel, just ahead of an enormous tanker, which bears down on it like a ghost.
My favorite is a nighttime image, rendered in shades of black and white, in which the Pott family escapes from the gangster Joe the Monster, the car black in the evening sky like an enormous bird.
If all you know of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is the movie, Burningham's art is a revelation, pulsing with both menace and possibility. The same is true of Fleming's text, which is harmless enough for children — the main plot twist involves a planned robbery of a Paris chocolate shop — but possesses an intensity of its own.
"There's something odd about this car," Commander Pott tells his wife and children. "… I can't exactly say, but sometimes, in the morning when I came back to work again, I'd find that certain modifications, certain changes, had, so to speak, taken place all by themselves during the night, when I wasn't there."
What Fleming is describing is something not unlike a Bond car, fitted with a host of special features, special attributes. The difference here is a certain sense of magic, which is what makes the book such a delight. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has a mind of its own, and all the Pott family can do is give themselves over to it. In that regard, it's more than a little bit like fate.
This is why the book holds up, 50 years after its original publication: its sense of the world as an inexplicable but also miraculous place.
"Never say no to adventures," Commander Pott insists to his children. The sentiment fits Fleming — World War II intelligence agent, thriller writer, devotee of the fine art of fast living — to a T. "Always say yes. Otherwise you'll lead a very dull life."