Rewrite children’s books or educate children? The example of Roald Dahl


Although many of his best-known books date from the 1960s, Roald Dahl is still one of the most popular children’s authors today. The recent decision by publisher Puffin, in conjunction with The Roald Dahl Story Company, to make several hundred revisions to new editions of his novels has drawn widespread criticism, with writer Salman Rushdie going so far as to speak of censorship.

Among the changes recommended by modern-day “sensitivity readers” are the removal or substitution of words describing the appearance of characters and the addition of gender-neutral vocabulary in certain passages. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , for example, Augustus Gloop is no longer “big” but “enormous”. Mrs. Twit of the Two Rascals became “awful” rather than “ugly and horrible”. In Matilda , the protagonist no longer reads the works of Rudyard Kipling but those of… Jane Austen .

While some have used the term “cancel culture” in this regard, these editorial choices are in fact part of a tradition where books for children and teenagers are retouched over time to match what adults think they are. should read.

Should we place children’s literature on an equal footing with adult literature, and also categorically condemn the alteration of texts? Or do we accept that children’s fiction is treated differently insofar as it would play the role of gateway to the world around us?

Classics rewritten for children

Published in 1807, Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare , a collection of 20 of Shakespeare’s plays, omitted “words and expressions … which cannot properly be read aloud in the family setting”, especially in front of women and children. .

Since then, the term bowdlerisation has been used across the Channel to refer to the process of modifying literary works for moral reasons (watered down editions of Shakespeare continued to be used in schools throughout the 20th century )  .

While Shakespeare’s works were not aimed specifically at children, Enid Blyton’s fictions are a more recent example of the watering down of works considered classics of children’s literature. Over the past forty years, his books have been edited several times , including The Club of Five and The Faraway Tree series .

Although many consider the novelist’s works to be hoarding cliches and totally uninteresting from a literary point of view, attempts to modernize the names and remove references to corporal punishment, for example, have annoyed those nostalgic for these stories. who wanted to introduce them to their children and grandchildren.

A literature that influences the youngest

Children’s literature implicitly shapes children’s minds by normalizing certain social and cultural values, presented as natural, a process that children’s literature researchers call “socialization”.

Although some of his works may be considered obscene or morally repugnant, adult literature is not considered to directly influence our way of thinking in the same way that books for younger children can.

While many are scandalized by the manifest censorship of Roald Dahl’s novels, the one that insidiously weighs on the publication of all children’s books is played out at several levels.

Children’s authors know that certain terms and content are incompatible with the publication of their book. Publishers are aware that controversial topics, such as sex and gender identity, can lead to certain titles being excluded from libraries and school curricula, or boycotts. Librarians and teachers may refuse to choose certain books because of the risk of complaints or because of their own political beliefs.

Several of Roald Dahl’s books have already been the subject of attempts to be rewritten or banned , notably Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), partially rewritten by the author in 1973 under pressure from the American Association for the Advancement People of Color (NAACP) and Children’s Literature Professionals.

In the original text, the Oompa Loompas were “a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies” whom Willy Wonka, the owner of the chocolate factory, “discovered” and “brought back from Africa” ​​to work in his factory, their only remuneration being cocoa beans, which they were fond of.

Although Roald Dahl denied having portrayed blacks negatively, he agreed to rewrite the passages in question. The Oompa Loompas now originate from Loompaland; they have “golden brown hair” and “white-pink skin”.

Solicit the critical eye of children

In Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books , Philip Nel , scholar of children’s literature, believes that three reactions to children’s books that contain terms and ideas considered inadmissible today.

The first is to consider these books as “cultural artifacts”, which have historical significance, but which children should not read. This option acts as an insidious censorship, since adults have the power to choose the books that children are allowed to read.

The second is to offer children only watered-down versions of these books, such as the ones that Roald Dahl’s editor has published recently. This undermines the principle that literary works are cultural objects, which should not be altered. Moreover, the substitution of certain words does not generally modify the way we look at the values ​​(today qualified as obsolete) conveyed by the text, but makes their identification and their questioning more difficult.

The third is to let children read any version of a book, whether original or watered down. In making this choice, we recognize that even young readers are capable of critically looking at a book’s message.

This option also allows discussing topics such as racism and sexism with parents and educators, which is easier if the original text has not been edited. Although Phil Nel favors this approach, he recognizes that the refusal to modify the texts may still confuse certain groups of readers (for example, black children who would read an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain which still included the word “nigger » .

Matilda by Roald Dahl is about the power of books to enrich and transform our lives, while recognizing the critical intelligence of children.

Although many aspects of the fictional past do not correspond to the idealized version of the world that we would like to present to children, as adults we can help them understand this past, rather than trying to rewrite it.

Author Bio: Michelle Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University