A British publisher has come under fire for rewriting new editions of Roald Dahl’s children’s books to remove language that today’s readers deem offensive when it comes to race, gender, weight, and mental health.
Puffin Books, a children’s imprint of Penguin Books, worked with the Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC), which is now exclusively owned by Netflix, to review the texts. RDSC hopes that rewriting books by one of the world’s most popular children’s authors, whose books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide, would ensure that “Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.”
Dahl is the author of many popular titles such as Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Witches. But in the years since Dahl’s death in 1990, some have turned their focus to a number of harmful tropes used by the late British author, including a history of anti-Semitic comments.
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The language review was conducted with Inclusive Minds, an organization that works with the children’s book world to support them with diversity and inclusion initiatives. The organization told TIME they “do not write, edit, or rewrite texts, but provide book creators with valuable insight from people with the relevant lived experience that they can take into consideration in the wider process of writing and editing.”
Some writers and voices within the publishing industry have criticized the updated works as an act of censorship they believe was brought about by Netflix’s 2021 acquisition of the RDSC. However, others say there is merit and precedent to rewriting books for a contemporary audience.
Below, what to know about the changes to Dahl’s work, and the reactions to it.
Dahl’s anti-Semiticism and controversial legacy
Dahl, who died at age 74, had a history of making anti-Semitic comments and including racist tropes and language in his works. For example, he originally wrote characters like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa Loompas as an African Pygmy tribe. In James and the Giant Peach, the Grasshopper declares at one point: “I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican.”
Dahl has also been called a misogynist for his unfavorable depictions of women in books such as The Witches.
In 2018, The Guardian reported that the British Royal Mint rejected a proposal to mark the 100th anniversary of Dahl’s birth with a commemorative coin. The idea was rejected on the grounds that he was “associated with anti-Semitism and not regarded as an author of the highest reputation.”
Amanda Bowman, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a community organization, backed the Mint’s decision. “He may have been a great children’s writer but he was also a racist and this should be remembered,” she said.
In 2020, the Dahl family and RDSC preempted public criticism of their literary patriarch, quietly issuing a statement apologizing for the hurt caused by his views.
“Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations,” it read. “We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”
Which of Dahl’s books have been rewritten?
According to The Independent, hundreds of changes have been made to Dahl’s body of work. These edits include the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach becoming Cloud-People, while in The Witches, the use of “old hags” has been replaced with “old crows.”
In Matilda, a mention of the English novelist Rudyard Kipling has also been replaced with Jane Austen. Kipling, who was born in 1865 in Bombay, India, has been variously labeled a colonialist, a racist, and misogynist in recent years.
In The Witches, Dahl had written, “You can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens.” That passage has now been changed to read: “Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.” In the same text, women who were described as being supermarket cashiers or letter-writers for businessmen were rewritten as top scientists or business owners.
Several amendments have been related to violence, including the removal of references to the electric chair in George’s Marvellous Medicine and a Quentin Blake illustration of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Mike Teavee with 18 toy pistols.
Some have suggested that the rewrites are a bid to shield Netflix from controversy as it continues to adapt the books for the big screen. Deadline reported that Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, directed by Matthew Warchus, has grossed over $33 million in U.K. cinemas since its Nov. 25 release, and it was also nominated for two BAFTAs.
Are there plans to rewrite translations of Dahl’s works?
So far, only changes to the English-language versions of Dahl’s works have been announced. On Tuesday, the French publishers of Dahl’s books ruled out any changes, The Guardian reported. “This rewrite only concerns Britain,” a spokesperson for the French publishers Gallimard said. “We have never changed Roald Dahl’s writings before, and we have no plans to do so today.”
Gallimard began publishing Dahl’s works in the 1960s, first with James and the Giant Peach (“James et La Grosse Peche) followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (“Charlie et la Chocolaterie”).
Why are some claiming the Dahl rewrites are censorship?
Among the critics of the rewrites are Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, who spent years in hiding after Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 issued a fatwa because of the alleged blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses. On Feb. 18, Rushie tweeted, “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.’’
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the first racial minority to hold the U.K.’s top political job, likewise criticized the decision. A spokesperson said on Monday: “When it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the prime minister agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words. I think it’s important that works of literature and works of fiction are preserved and not airbrushed. We have always defended the right to free speech and expression.”
Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a nonprofit organization that defends free expression in literature, also condemned the move in a Twitter thread. “The problem with taking license to re-edit classic works is that there is no limiting principle,” Nossel said. “You start out wanting to replace a word here and a word there, and end up inserting entirely new ideas.” Instead, she suggests, publishers should include introductions to works with offensive language to prepare readers with context.
But Karen Sands-O’Connor, a professor of children’s literature at Newcastle University, says Dahl was no stranger to editing out offensive language and even did so in his own lifetime. “Admittedly under pressure from his publisher,” Sands-O’Connor says. Dahl transformed Oompa Loompas, she adds, from an African Pygmy tribe in the 1964 edition, to people from the fictionalized Loompaland in order to avoid controversy.
Sands-O’Connor says publishers have three choices: stop publishing the work and lose money while risking another publisher releasing the works, leave it as it is and face accusations of sexism, racism, classism, or tailor it to a present-day audience. The latter, she says, is the “least problematic option.”
However, Philip Pullman, a prominent British author, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and said publishers should simply let Dahl’s books go “out of print.” Pullman also encouraged listeners to read the work of other authors, such as Michael Morpurgo, Malorie Blackman, and Jaqueline Wilson.
What other authors have seen their works rewritten?
In March 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that six Dr. Seuss books such as And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo would no longer be published as they contained racist and insensitive imagery.
The organization told the Associated Press in a statement that the books portray people in “hurtful and wrong” ways and the ceasing of sales was part of a broader plan for inclusivity.
A number of other famous works have been pulled over the years, including Herbert R. Kohl’s Babar’s Travels, which was removed from a British library in 2012 for containing racist imagery of African people. However, textual tweaks appear to be a less common approach.
Sands-O’Connor says that Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle faced revisions in the 1960s and again in the 1980s after concerns about racism but despite these tweaks, children today typically engage with the film adaptations rather than the book.
She cautions that original copies will always be available and children’s classics will continue to sell if parents feel nostalgic about them. The better option, Sands-O’Connor adds, is to focus on discovering new and exciting storytellers: “The books are out there, people just need to look for them.”
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