The beloved author’s books are being edited by their publisher to suit contemporary sensibilities. That robs us of the author’s vision—and any sense of history.
By Katha Pollitt
The United States can be a harsh place to be a child. There are guns galore and bullies in school. Suicide is on the rise, homelessness is rampant, and many school budgets have been scraped down to the bone. In New York City, almost one in five children are poor. One in seven doesn’t have enough to eat. Even well-off youngsters struggle with sexual abuse, depression, stress, and the cruelty of online life. Thank God there is one place where all is sweetness and light, or will be soon—children’s books.
You may have read that Roald Dahl’s classic tales have been altered to be, well, nicer. Because as we all know, niceness is what Roald Dahl is all about. Forget the misanthropy, physical disgust, and delight in transgression and violence and extravagance that give his stories bite and edge. Forget, too, the dependence of wit and vividness on specific, concrete words, on their sounds and evocative associations. What matters is that no one in the whole world be offended and that no opportunity be missed for moral improvement.
The Roald Dahl Story Company and Puffin, Dahl’s authorized publisher, have teamed up with a group called Inclusive Minds, “a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature.” The organization turned the task of sanitizing Dahl over to their sensitivity readers, the oddly named Inclusivity Ambassadors, who have “lived experience” and can provide “valuable input.” If they sound like smooth-talking authoritarians, that’s not far off. In the world of children’s lit these days, sensitivity is king. But are actual readers—parents and children—calling out for the removal of the word “black” describing tractors or for replacing “North Africa” with “lots of different countries”? Do they object to describing a voice as “screechy” instead of “annoying”? I don’t know why Dahl is being censored—hopes of higher profits by Netflix, which owns the rights to his books and the movies made from them? Fear of social-justice Twitter? Did it start out as a few modest tweaks but got out of hand? In any case, there’s a loss in these changes—in vivacity, vigor, concreteness. As any good writer can tell you, we all know what a screechy voice sounds like, but an annoying one could be anything.
The Ambassadors have made hundreds of changes—59 in The Witches alone. At first, I thought a few were justifiable. Dahl was oddly obsessed with fatness and unattractiveness and used these qualities to mock unlikable characters. In the new editions, every single use of “fat” and “ugly” has been removed. I see the point: We know a lot more now than a few generations ago about how children suffer when others make fun of their appearance, and how long-lasting the harm is. But I don’t know that replacing “fat” with “enormous” sends a different message, or that replacing “fat little brown mouse” with “little brown mouse” does much for the cause of kindness—doesn’t fat also suggest cute and cuddly, at least in small furry animals? The trouble is, once you start fiddling, where do you stop? Why not leave the books alone, and if people are so offended, they can stop reading them (which I doubt will happen any time soon)? The alternative is the falsification of history and the dumbing-down of great literature.
Be that as it may, most of the changes have no such therapeutic rationale. They seem more like the work of an over-caffeinated undergraduate relying on those lists activists write up of Words to Avoid. “Crazy” becomes “silly,” while “idiot,” “nutty,” “screwy,” and other mental-health-related colloquialisms are deleted. “Mother “and “father” become “parents,” “brother and sister” are “siblings,” “boys and girls” are “children,” “ladies and gentlemen” are “folks.” (Sadly missing is my favorite degenderizing neologism, “nibling,” for niece or nephew, which sounds like something you’d find in a can of corn, or maybe an opera by Wagner). But the Ambassadors don’t stop with simple word changes. Compare these passages from The Witches:
2001: “Don’t be foolish,” my grandmother said. “You can’t go around pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens.”
2022: “Don’t be foolish,” my grandmother said. “Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”
It helps to consider the actual story. The Witches wear wigs because they are bald, and they wear gloves to hide their claws. Touching their wigs would be a dangerous thing to do. Besides, the story takes place at a witches’ convention, where it is unlikely the child narrator is going to meet an ultra-orthodox woman in a sheitel or a chemo patient or a woman who simply enjoys playing with her appearance. But never mind the context: The important thing is to remember that wigs are okay! Be nice! Even if it means adding a preachy smiley face to a book written by an angry genius.
And what about this change in Matilda? Dahl is describing the joy of reading:
2001: She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.
2022: She went to nineteenth-century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and California with John Steinbeck.
Take away those olden-day sailing ships and all the adventure is gone. I love Jane Austen, but the constrained world of Regency country gentry simply doesn’t convey the excitement and danger and unfamiliarity Dahl was going for. As for John Steinbeck’s California, it was a grim and prosaic place. What child has ever said, Oh, to be on the road with the Joads! And why is that old imperialist Kipling gone but not Hemingway, whose African stories heavily feature white men hunting now-endangered species and drinking too much? Isn’t Hemingway kind of a colonizer too? Perhaps the next edition will replace him with Mary Oliver.
I’ve loved Dahl’s books since Mrs. Jesup read us James and the Giant Peach in the seventh grade. Back in those barbarous times, even delightful, wise teachers in an all-girls school thought nothing of references to the Cloud-Men, who are now Cloud-People (singular, Cloud-Person), or of calling the earthworm “pink” (now deleted, along with many color words which to a demented—I mean, silly—person might sound “racist,” even though earthworms actually are pink). The Ladybug no longer blushes—I suppose blushing is too stereotypically feminine. Gone too is the passage describing the Cloud-Men’s wives frying snowballs for their supper. Well, gender-neutral Cloud-People wouldn’t have wives, would they? Certainly not ones who cooked for their men. It’s as if the Ambassadors think children have no sense that the past was different, as if it cannot be explained to them, if need be, that in 1961, when James and the Giant Peach was published, mothers did the cooking—as in most households they still do! No, reality, past or present, must be tidied away, lest some child somewhere starts fuming because the fried snowballs aren’t on the table promptly at six o’clock now that Mom has a job.
Each of these changes might seem small enough, but if you add them up, what you have is a weaker, duller, blander text. Dahl’s delicious dialogue loses its edge of rage. In places, the rhythm is destroyed. (The revised comic poems are a mess.) What gives these politically correct plodders the right to meddle with historical texts approved by their author and known and beloved by millions? Dah died only in 1990; he had plenty of time to rethink his literary choices, and in fact sometimes did so: The Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory started life in 1964 as African pygmies content to work for cocoa beans. Dahl revised that in a 1973 reprint—but it was his decision as the author, not that of some anonymous committee.
In the late 17th century, Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear with a happy ending. In the early 19th century, Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler made Shakespeare safe for women and children by taking out all the sexy bits. History has not been kind to either project. It is my dearest hope that the Inclusivity Ambassadors will meet a similar fate
Source: Let Kids Read Roald Dahl’s Books the Way He Wrote Them