The covers of some of Puffin Books’ editions of three young adult novels by Roald Dahl
The English publisher modified the texts to make them more contemporary, which has met with a lot of criticism
Roald Dahl has been dead for more than thirty years but is still one of the most popular children’s book authors in the world. However, in recent years some aspects of his stories have been criticized as offensive to contemporary sensibilities. Dahl had an irreverent style and in his books the moral qualities of negative characters are often associated with physical qualities such as ugliness and obesity: to cite just one example, characters who eat a lot are often mocked for it.
The British publisher of Dahl’s books and the Roald Dahl Story Company, the company that owns the copyright to the author’s work and which has been part of Netflix since 2021, have therefore decided to introduce a long series of small changes in the latest editions of children’s books Novels, changes, however, were heavily challenged and criticized by newspapers, writers and readers on social networks, after which Dahl’s work was betrayed and censored.
The changes were announced on Friday in a lengthy article in the Telegraph, a British newspaper with a conservative leaning, which analyzed ten of Dahl’s children’s books in detail and compared the latest editions to those published a few years ago. Altogether there are hundreds of changes: in many cases individual words (like the adjective fat) or phrases were simply dropped, in others the text was revised more extensively, often modifying descriptions of the physical appearance of the personalities. Dahl’s view of the world appears in various places that may sound sexist today: that of a Briton born in 1916.
The Telegraph found 59 changes in the text of The Witches, which features a child being turned into a rat by a coven and was adapted into a 2020 film starring Anne Hathaway. This novel is one of Dahl’s most criticized, both in the past and recently: back in the 1980s, when the book came out, the author was accused of misogyny for being the grandmother, despite having the most positive character in the story of the protagonist, the description of the witches is not flattering at all and seems to imply that some seemingly pleasant women are actually evil monsters.
Witches are all women.
I don’t want to speak ill of women. They are usually adorable. But all witches are women: that is a fact.
[Traduzione di Francesca Lazzarato e Lorenza Manzi dall’edizione italiana Salani]
Only the first sentence of this passage survives in the Puffin Books reprint. Puffin Books is the British publisher of Dahl’s children’s books and a publishing brand of the Penguin Random House group, the world’s largest publishing house. Other sentences have also been replaced or removed in the same text. For example, in the old edition, at one point the grandmother explains to her grandson that witches wear gloves to hide that they have “long, sharp, curved claws” instead of nails and wigs to hide that they are bald. He replies that that is why he will pull all women’s hair to recognize the witches, and the grandmother replies:
Do not be stupid. You can’t pull the hair of every woman you meet, even if she’s wearing gloves. Try it and you will see.
In the new UK edition, the answer was:
Do not be stupid. However, there are many other reasons a woman might wear a wig and there is nothing wrong with that.
[Traduzione del Post]
The most recent criticism of the witches, arriving at the 2020 theatrical release, was actually about the appearance of the novel’s antagonists, who in the most recent film adaptation had hands with only two fingers: many people with hand and arm deformities criticized this choice because it was a physical trait with the malice and monstrosity of witches, and both the film’s production company, Warner Bros, and Anne Hathaway issued apologies. The passage on wigs was most likely changed to indicate that many bald women wear them because they suffer from alopecia or have undergone certain therapies.
Other changes introduced in Charmed concern the words used to define some people. In the novel there is a waitress who works in the hotel where the protagonist lives and where the witches organized their convention: Dahl had defined her as chambermaid, an antiquated term that includes maid, which in addition to “housekeeper” also means ” Fräulein” means “, and that sounds a bit like “cleaning lady”; in the new edition we talk about cleaner, a term now in use that means “person in charge of cleaning” (in english, nouns are not declined by gender, so it could also indicate a man).
Other similar changes concern statements that today are more or less perceived as sexist. Some drop the nuance, others add a new one, as in the case of this passage, always referring to witches:
Whether as a cashier in the supermarket or as a secretary in the office […].
Whether she is a great scientist or runs a company […].
The change was made to avoid mentioning two professions stereotypically associated with women, particularly at a time when many professions were actually reserved for men in Western societies.
Among other things, one changes that affects the character of Matilda, the protagonist of the novel of the same name, who now reads Jane Austen instead of Rudyard Kipling, whose books were strongly influenced by the colonial mentality of the 19th century. While Ms. Hoppy is no longer described as an “attractive middle-aged lady” by Agura Trat, but as a “nice middle-aged lady”. Removed the words crazy and mad, ie the English for ‘crazy’, words related to old mental health clichés and the occurrence of ‘white’ and ‘black’, also in relation to a coat and not just that of human skin. From this famous passage of the Sporcellis
A person with kind thoughts can never be ugly. She may have a lumpy nose, crooked mouth and loose teeth, but when she has kind thoughts, they will light up her face like rays of sunshine and she will always look beautiful.
[Traduzione di Paola Forti]
The double chin, literally “double chin”, which translated to “crooked mouth” in Italian, was removed.
The existence of changes in the new editions is indicated by a short note in the imprint of the books, ie on the start page, on which the publication date and the rights holders are given. The note reads: “Words matter. Roald Dahl’s great words can take you to different worlds and introduce wonderful characters. This book was written many years ago and that is why we regularly review the language to make sure that it can still be appreciated by all people today ».
A spokesman for the Roald Dahl Story Company told the Telegraph the changes were made “while retaining the plot of the story, the characters’ characters and the irreverence and sharp wit of the original text” and that they were “small and carefully considered.” . The company had begun review work alongside Puffin in 2020, when it was still part of Dahl’s heirs and not Netflix.
In selecting the book words to change, Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company worked with Inclusive Minds, an organization dedicated to “inclusive and accessible children’s literature.”
The people who work for Inclusive Minds perform a relatively new, but now quite prominent role in Anglo-Saxon publishing: they are sensitivity readers, which could be translated as “sensibility readers”, i.e. reviewers who read books before they are published will look for typographical errors in the texts or verify the information contained therein, but noting any expressions that some groups of people might find offensive. They are people of different genders, sexual orientations, ethnic origins and physical characteristics and should therefore be able to identify potentially controversial aspects for each type of person. As a rule, these are still unpublished books, but in the area of children’s books they can also be commissioned to reread old texts, for example by Dahl.
In this context, her work aims to eliminate details that are now considered harmful or exclusive for some children. For example, when they recommend eliminating references to the characters’ skin color, they do so with the goal of allowing every child to identify with those characters.
But for many people reading the Telegraph article, the changes made to Dahl’s books are too much. Among the authors who took to Twitter to criticize the choice of Puffin Books and the Roald Dahl Story Company was Salman Rushdie: “Roald Dahl was no angel [disse anche frasi antisemite, per cui la famiglia si è scusata nel 2020], but that’s an absurd complaint. The rights holders of Puffin Books and Dahl should be ashamed.”
Roald Dahl was no angel, but that’s absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl Estate should be ashamed. https://t.co/sdjMfBr7WW
— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) February 18, 2023
In the past, it had happened to Dahl himself to make changes to the first versions of his books because some details were perceived as racist. In the 1964 first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Oompa-Loompa factory workers were described as “black pygmies” found in the “African jungle” by Willy Wonka, who enslaved them. A few years later, Dahl changed the text to distance the Oompa-Loompa from African people, and today they are described as fictional beings. However, the changes Dahl made during his lifetime were few, far fewer than those in recent editions of his books.
Continue on the post