The fairy tales I read as a child were a world of terror. These collections by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm are still on my shelves, alongside volumes of European and international folk tales and Greek myths. They all fired my imagination and captivated me with lessons about the darkness that lies at the heart of existence.
No children’s story Roald Dahl ever invented could compare to these beloved tales of cruel old witches, rapacious kings, sex-crazed princes, evil midgets, trolls and (of course) pretty virgin victims – who would inevitably be abandoned by adults and abused by wicked stepmothers , imprisoned, dragged on horses, kissed (without consent, of course), threatened with cannibalism, forced to marry men they did not know, and so on. How exciting!
But now Roald Dahl’s Matilda, James And The Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Witches and other classic titles are not considered suitable for children – unless they are sanitized.
His characteristic acrimony has been blunted, his language altered to accommodate modern sensibilities around gender, race, weight, violence and mental health. The Cloud People in James and the Giant Peach are now the Cloud People. Tractors in Fantastic Mr Fox aren’t allowed to be “black” for fear it’s racist, and a character isn’t allowed to “turn white”, they have to “turn pretty pale”.
In 1983, Dahl wrote a story about a boy who grew up with a bunch of bald witches. Wonderfully uncomfortable The Witches contained this passage: “Don’t be foolish,” said my grandmother. “You can’t go around pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she’s wearing gloves. Just try it and see what happens.”
Change: Augustus Gloop is now ‘huge’ instead of ‘fat’
But now Roald Dahl’s Matilda, James And The Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Witches and other classic titles are not considered suitable for children – unless they are sanitized
In the last issue, which came out last year, it said, “Don’t be foolish,” said my grandmother. “Also, there are many other reasons why women might wear wigs and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.”‘
Can you believe that? The pathetic tampering with the dangerous Dahl goes on and on: “You must be crazy, woman!” becomes ‘You must be crazy!’ Ms. Twit is no longer “ugly” and the Oompa Loompas are gender neutral. Then “old hag” becomes “old crow” – which, of course, is a serious insult to those of us who love those wild, black (oops) birds.
No character is allowed to be “fat” – because that might annoy the burger-eating youth. Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now “huge” instead of “fat”.
“Fat Little Brown Mouse” is changed to “Little Brown Mouse” (The Witches). The words “Here’s your little boy,” she said. “He’s gotta be on a diet” was shortened to “Here’s your little boy.”
One of the changes in The Witches is particularly torturous. The sentence “Even if she works as a cashier in a supermarket or types letters for a businessman” was changed to “Even if she works as a top scientist or runs a company”.
This reveals a truth at the heart of the censoring psyche. These snooty, publicist oafs have all the degrees of a modern university and just can’t bear to think about “normal” lives and everyday jobs.
Oh my dear – imagine you were the inferior woman scanning her sauvignon, salami and satsumas at Waitrose. . .
Once upon a time, I was a successful children’s book author, my books (particularly the popular Kitty series) put me in the pinnacle of royalties earned from book rentals. I used to visit libraries, schools and children’s festivals across the UK to talk about my work and answer questions.
Tractors in Fantastic Mr Fox aren’t allowed to be “black” for fear it’s racist, and a character isn’t allowed to “turn white”, they have to “turn pretty pale”.
That’s how I discovered firsthand how quirky, entertaining, questioning, silly, cute, and admirably resilient kids can be. They wanted to talk about anything from the cheeky ‘How much do you earn, miss?’ to the tragic “It’s not fair that my favorite uncle died – and he was young, too.” Nothing was beyond them.
Back then you thought you could write almost anything for children and trust your own knowledge and experience. My books have thrown up problems, but they’ve also been funny. Essentially, I’ve always been on the side of the naughty and understood the fears behind bad behavior. Nobody ever told me what to write.
So it makes me red hot to see today’s young readers being patronized and neglected by adults who should know better. I pity modern writers struggling against the rising tide of puritanism and protectionism that has swept through the publishing industry. Nobody is safe. Not even David Walliams, who has been criticized for the crude character descriptions in his novels.
It may be tempting to just poke fun at the “sensitive readers” of the once-great publishing house Puffin Books — and other major publishers, too. These hapless souls are doomed to curl up in their tower like poor Rapunzel, forced to scour books for “problematic” words and phrases that might invoke “insults” – and weep in horror as they rewrite them.
You must have nightmares about evil witches, inappropriate princes and black cats. The fairy tales I read as a child would make any “sensibility reader” faint with shock.
We could chuckle at the absurdity. Or sigh helplessly that this is just another example of “awakened” censorship. But this is deadly serious – and all the righteous outrage caused by this betrayal of the spirit of Dahl has an undercurrent of helplessness. What the hell can we do?
Children’s imaginations are born with fear – the witches and goblins of folklore and the nameless fear of the dark. As they get older, more specific figures emerge from the darkness: strangers, robbers, the monster you know lives under the bed.
Books like Dahl’s—in their messy form—accommodate these ideas. They help prepare youth for the horrors evoked by images from an imperfect world: gunshots, bombs, violence, the shattered sadness on the faces of survivors after a tsunami, a famine, an earthquake.
How can it be right to censor Roald Dahl at a time when young children are given smartphones by parents and will soon be able to access hardcore pornography with a few clicks.
It seems that the teachers, librarians and (some) parents – who have been sipping the woke Kool-Aid so eagerly they’ve lost their minds – are very happy when toddlers are offered books that feed them transpropaganda. They don’t mind older kids being subjected to horribly explicit sex education that suggests sadomasochism can be a fun part of sex.
None of this is remotely funny, and no one should turn their backs on what is happening with our culture. Puffin’s arrogant censorship of Dahl’s sharp, intentionally shocking prose is just another example of an insidious takeover of our heritage. Make no mistake, there really is a serious culture war going on.
This is not a fantasy concocted by conservative journalists and politicians to attack liberal values — or whatever terms the censors may use to justify their shocking arrogance. It’s not made up by writers like Salman Rushdie, who tweeted, “Roald Dahl wasn’t an angel but that’s absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl Estate should be ashamed.’ Or children’s writers like the brilliant Anthony Horowitz, who has fought his own battles with sensitive readers and warns that moral policing of literature is ‘extremely dangerous’.
This latest example of the appalling stranglehold that wokery (or political correctness, as it was formerly known) now has on our society must put us through weary smiles and sighs. The issue affects each of us. Above all, it denies children the right to be shocked, afraid, to laugh at the “wrong” things, and to form their own opinions about the world.
For their sake we must shout: ‘Enough!’ What gives these censors – who also find Shakespeare and many other writers greater than Roald Dahl “problematic” – the right to manipulate our cultural heritage?
The serious backlash is overdue. How about refusing to buy a book published by Puffin? After that – I will meet you on the barricades to hurl their meager rewritten efforts at the enemy and wake them up with a vengeance.