Publishing company Puffin Books, with the permission of the Roald Dahl Story Company, has rewritten many of Roald Dahl’s famous children’s books. They employed sensitivity readers from Inclusive Minds to rid these well-known stories of any potentially offensive language. But in response to widespread criticism of this decision, the company has today announced that the original versions will be made available as the Roald Dahl Classic Collection.
The perceived bowdlerisation of Roald Dahl’s books, a term for the alteration of literary work stemming from Thomas Bowdler who published an edited version of Shakespeare called ‘The Family Shakespeare’, was praised by some but caused outrage in others who deem it another example of wokeness being taken too far. Many took to Twitter to criticise Puffin’s move, the most notable being Salman Rushdie.
Today, Puffin Books responded to public anger and announced that they now intend to publish the ‘Roald Dahl Classic Collection’ alongside the new version of the books, to preserve the original content of the author’s writing. The Roald Dahl Story Company has issued the following statement:
“The last few days have demonstrated just how important Roald Dahl’s stories are to fans all around the world and we’ve been deeply moved by the strength of feeling. The most important thing to us is that the stories continue to be enjoyed by all.”
Children’s books shape young minds
One of the main reasons for originally suggesting the changes is that children’s books are not the same as books written for adults. The books that children read are often an important aspect of their socialisation. Michelle Smith, a senior lecturer in literary studies at Monash University, wrote in her article for The Conversation:
“Children’s literature implicitly shapes the minds of child readers by presenting particular social and cultural values as normal and natural.”
Children’s authors have always known that certain language can’t be used, because it isn’t appropriate when writing for this age group. But what is considered appropriate changes over time, as social attitudes change and we become more aware of the impact of language. So how should we deal with already published books that don’t follow the current rules? Should we decide that older books with inappropriate language should no longer be published or if they should be edited to meet our present-day cultural values and modes of expression?
Dahl’s books aren’t the first to be edited to be more appropriate to modern day sensibilities. Many of Enid Blyton’s children’s books such as The Magic Faraway Tree have been edited to remove racist language. However, the issue with the bowdlerising of Dahl’s work seems to be the extent to which it has been done – such as changing ‘cloud men’ to ‘cloud people’, which some, like Russell Kane has said on Twitter, think is just unnecessary.
Dahl’s books are, after all, a product of their time. Things have changed since the 1960s but to attempt to erase the prejudices that existed during that time might have done more harm than good. Many have argued that Dahl’s books should be left as they are, because it can be a teachable moment for children, providing an opportunity to discuss why words matter, why attitudes to language changes over the years, and why it’s so important to be inclusive as a society.
Some parents suggested simply adding a disclaimer at the beginning of the books, which is similar to what Warner Bros Studios has done in the past with outdated and potentially offensive cartoons. Although, this approach is also one that has attracted debate.
Is it all for profit?
Some commentators have claimed that the ‘sensitivity editing’ of Roald Dahl’s books was designed to spark controversy as a marketing stunt to sell more books while at the same time making the books more appealing for younger generations of parents who do not want their children reading outdated potentially offensive language. It’s a strategy other companies have used in the past.
For example, Nike’s sales increased by 31% after their ad in 2019 which included Colin Kaepernick, a professional American football player who kneeled during the national anthem. The player kneeling to protest racial injustice sparked lots of controversy, so including him in the ad made the brand a part of that controversy. In a way controversy is free advertising because it gets people talking about a brand or product.
This debate is a contentious one and everyone will have different opinions about what children should be exposed to. Still, with both the classic editions and the new editions available, parents and teachers can decide for themselves what is suitable for children to read.