Furore as Roald Dahl children’s books scrubbed clean in the name of inclusivity

Tomorrow's children might not be reading the same Roald Dahl classics as the generations before them.

Tomorrow's children might not be reading the same Roald Dahl classics as the generations before them. Photo: TND/Penguin/Getty

A number of beloved children’s books by British author Roald Dahl have been rewritten in an effort to be more inclusive, but the changes have met widespread criticism.

Hundreds of edits have been made to 10 of Dahl’s books, including Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and Matilda.

Some of the most targeted words and phrases refer to appearance, gender, race and mental health.

The edits come after a review of the books began in 2020, conducted by Puffin, the Roald Dahl Story Company (which sold the rights to the books to Netflix in 2021), and children’s books consulting collective Inclusive Minds.

The Telegraph reports a note on the copyright page of Puffin’s latest editions of Dahl’s books now reads: “Words matter … This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”

A Roald Dahl Story Company spokesperson told The Telegraph that it’s “not unusual” to review the language written years ago, likening it to updating a book’s cover and page layout.

“Our guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text,” they said. “Any changes made have been small and carefully considered.”

The move to edit Dahl’s work comes after the author had been accused of anti-Semitism, misogyny and racism.

Netflix Roald Dahl

The children’s author has been lambasted for his offensive views. Photo: Getty

In 2020, Dahl’s family and the Roald Dahl Story Company issued an apology for his anti-Semitic history.

“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 said.

“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.”

What has been changed?

Books by Dahl that have been revised include:

  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • James and the Giant Peach
  • Matilda
  • The Twits
  • The Witches
  • Fantastic Mr Fox
  • The BFG
  • The Enormous Crocodile
  • Esio Trot
  • George’s Marvellous Medicine

The Telegraph collated all of the differences observed between the 2001 editions and 2022 editions, and the changes are significant.

Some edits come down to simple rewording; the 2001 edition of The Twits reads, “She was a prisoner.” The 2022 edition reads, “She was stuck.”

But some sentences have been removed.

For example, the 2001 edition of James and the Giant Peach reads: “In another minute, this mammoth fruit was as round and large and fat as Aunt Sponge herself, and probably just as heavy.”

This sentence was completely removed in the 2022 edition.

This is not the first time Dahl’s work has been revised to be deemed less offensive; the author changed the description of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa-Loompas after being accused of negatively portraying black people, which he denied.

Oompa-Loompas were originally described as “a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies” who had been discovered and “brought over from Africa” by Willy Wonka to work in his factory for no payment other than cacao beans.

Dahl revised the descriptions of Oompa-Loompas in 1973 so they became residents of “Loompaland” with “golden-brown hair” and “rosy-white skin”, but Puffin appears to have completely removed Dahl’s revised physical description of Oompa-Loompas.

What has been the reaction?

Furious reactions came swiftly when news broke of the Dahl edits.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak implied Puffin’s move hindered free speech.

“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,” Mr Sunak said in a statement.

“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.”

Although many who have criticised the editing of Dahl’s books acknowledged problematic themes or language, they said sweeping it all under the rug was not the right answer.

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a group dedicated to human rights and freedom of expression, tweeted the organisation is “alarmed” by the changes.

“Those who might cheer specific edits to Dahl’s work should consider how the power to rewrite books might be used in the hands of those who do not share their values and sensibilities,” she said.

“We understand the impulse to want to ensure that great works of children’s literature do not alienate kids or foster stereotypes.

“Better than playing around with these texts is to offer introductory context that prepares people for what they are about to read, and helps them understand the setting in which it was written.”

Has it happened elsewhere?

Ms Nossel compared editing Dahl’s work to the streak of book bans sweeping US schools.

Moves towards crackdowns have been seen in states such as Missouri, Utah, Arizona, Iowa and Florida.

Some Utah school libraries now require permission slips for students to borrow books covering LGBTQI+ themes, while Republican lawmakers in Arizona have pushed up a bill to the Senate proposing a ban on books that are sexual, or promote gender fluidity or gender pronouns.

The American Library Association found there were 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources in the first eight months of 2022, targeting 1651 books.

“Amidst fierce battles against book bans and strictures on what can be taught and read, selective editing to make works of literature conform to particular sensibilities could represent a dangerous new weapon,” Nossel said.

In Australia, Melbourne’s Northcote High School recently removed dozens of books from its library deemed to be inaccurate or offensive, particularly surrounding European colonisation of Australia.

Topics: Books
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