Pop culture is a battleground – and this is no truer than in the arena of children’s fiction. The latest skirmish was sparked by Puffin’s announcement that Roald Dahl’s perennial faves had been revisited by sensitivity readers and set to be stripped of outdated terms and unsavoury views. Cue a cavalcade of opinion pieces either crying censorship or arguing it was time children stopped reading books written by such a “hateful person”.
The use of sensitivity readers – professionals who vet texts for words or ideas that some might find offensive – is controversial when it comes to new works, but even more so when it comes to the classics. Puffin claimed the changes, which are mainly removing references to characters being fat or ugly, ensure Dahl’s books could “continue to be enjoyed by all today”. This reflects a dominant idea in publishing that to be more inclusive, we need to be more vigilant about excluding certain elements.
Changes to kids’ books are nothing new. Enid Blyton’s works have long been progressively stripped of elements such as Noddy’s ‘Golliwogs’ that, by modern standards, appear outrageously racist.
In her lifetime, Blyton approved changes that brought her books in line with changing social mores, while also seeing her work banned from school libraries. The latest raft of changes to her Famous Five books, announced in March, seem to reflect changing ideas around respectful relationships. Phrases like “shut up” and “don’t be an ass” have been replaced by kinder language such as “be sensible, George”.
The problem with Dahl is that, unlike Blyton, rudeness is a key part of his appeal. Generations of children have been drawn to his books not just because of their fantastical stories but also their delicious wrongness. They have long been an introduction to subversive thinking.
Dahl understood that kids are driven by the sort of dark urges most children’s fiction tries to erase. They delight in hearing words they are not supposed to use, in horrible things happening to other children, in characters being naughty and getting away with it.
Blyton can be bowdlerised, because she didn’t set out to be transgressive. But making Dahl palatable is to tamper with authorial intent.
The problem with Dahl is that rudeness is a key part of his appeal.
Some of the changes are also undeniably clumsy. In The Witches, a paragraph explaining that witches are bald beneath their wigs now ends with the new line: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.” Which turns a delightfully wicked twist on fears of the ancient feminine into something approaching a public service announcement.
Other changes inadvertently strip some of the more poetic elements. When Mrs Twit is no longer “ugly and beastly” but merely “beastly”, we lose Dahl’s reflection that it is both our thoughts and character that make us ugly, no matter what faces we’re born with.
Many authors rushed to Puffin’s defence, even as the free speech warriors fired up their keyboards. Young Adult author Wil Kostakis told the ABC he regretted using certain words in a book of his published a decade earlier and said publishers had the right to edit works as they saw fit. Jackie French said it was fair to modernise works, but noted that Dahl’s instinct to shock should be respected in new editions. Andy Griffiths argued for a balanced approach, where authorial intent was preserved while acknowledging a more diverse readership.
At heart, the debates around free speech and censorship pivot on the perceived purpose of children’s fiction. Is it to play with darker, unsayable things and, in doing so, reflect the reality of childhood for many (if not most) kids? Or is it to present an idealised version of reality in which only bad people say or think bad things?
Many authors argue there are newer, better books for kids to read than those written half a decade ago. But there are arguments, too, for preserving that vanished world, ugly parts and all. Leaving unappealing artefacts in classic works means they can function as an illustration of progress. How are kids to see how far we’ve come if we can’t see where we’ve been?
Ultimately, Puffin waved a white flag and announced Dahl’s books would continue to be available as ‘Dahl Classic’ alongside the edited ‘New Dahl’ versions. In the meantime, his sales have soared as panicked parents bought up his back catalogue.
Some suggested the whole thing was a marketing ploy. Arguably, the edits to Dahl’s work are less a progressive political statement and more an attempt to ensure his books continue to make publishers a lot of money in a changing world.
Culture wars are fuelled by outrage on both sides, and outrage can be a powerful form of free publicity. This skirmish is a reminder that, for big corporations, losing the battle can still be very good for business.