“Roald Dahl was no angel, but this is absurd censorship,” wrote Rushdie, a Booker Prize-winning author. Twitter, calling the children’s imprint of British publisher Penguin Books. “Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”
Rushdie is one of the world’s most famous authors – whose book ‘Satanic Verses’ sparked calls from Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 to assassinate him and anyone implicated in the book. Rushdie was stabbed 10 times last year at an event in New York but survived, and his latest novel was published this month.
The changes to Dahl’s children’s books were made in partnership with Inclusive Minds, a collective of people passionate about inclusion, diversity and accessibility in children’s literature, the Roald Dahl Story Company said.
Among the changes, according to the Telegraph: Augustus Gloop’s character from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is no longer described as “fat.” Now it is called “huge”. What was described as a “weird African language” in the book “The Twits” is no longer weird. In “The BFG”, a reference to the “Bloodbottler” character having “reddish brown” skin was removed completely.
Some characters are now gender neutral. Singing and Dancing Oompa Loompas from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were once described as “little men”; now they are “little people”. In “James and the Giant Peach”, the Cloud-Men – mysterious figures who live in the sky – are now known as Cloud-People.
In some cases, new lines have been added. In “The Witches”, a paragraph which explains that witches are bald under their wigs contains a new sentence: “There are many other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. .”
The Roald Dahl Story Company said in an emailed statement on Sunday that review of Dahl’s writing began in 2020 – before the works were acquired by streaming giant Netflix – and that the edits were ” small and carefully studied”.
The company said it wanted to “ensure that Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today” and that the review was a routine process. “When publishing new printings of books written years ago, it is not unusual to review the language used alongside updating other details, including the cover and layout of a book,” the statement said.
Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, said the organization – a nonprofit that works to defend and celebrate freedom of expression through the advancement of literature and human rights – was “alarmed by the news” of changes to Dahl’s works, calling the movement “a supposed effort to clean the books of what might offend someone.” In a series of tweetsNossel wrote that “literature is meant to be startling and provocative” and that efforts to erase words that might offend only “dilute the power of storytelling”.
“If we start trying to correct perceived slights instead of allowing readers to receive and respond to books as they are written, we risk distorting the work of great authors and obscuring the essential purpose that literature offers on society,” she said.
Nossel suggested that instead of revising the literature and “playing around” with the text, editors and publishers could perhaps provide “an introductory context that prepares people for what they are about to read and helps them understand the setting in which it was written”.
Others on social media warned of a dangerous precedent. “You publish a few books with outdated attitudes, there are only 400 years of literature left,” said one user in a Tweeter. “Where do you draw the line here?”
Critics say Dahl’s books are bigoted, racist, sexist and full of gratuitous violence. And some writers thought the reaction to the latest changes was overblown.
“It’s good to move with the times,” Ashley Esqueda, writer and pop culture expert, tweeted. “Very tired of people demanding that we stay locked in their childhood.”
God damn it already seeing the tasteless performative outrage of Roald Dahl’s estate approving the changes to his books, his estate approved, no one forced them. It’s good to move with the times. It’s good. Very tired of people demanding that we stay locked in their childhood.
— Ashley Esqueda (@AshleyEsqueda) February 18, 2023
A social media user said they were “pretty happy to have more inclusive versions to read to my toddler…I was horrified by the content of some of the things I read as a child, having revisited them at the adulthood”.
While Dahl’s writing is world famous – with at least 300 million copies sold in 58 languages, according to British newspaper The Bookseller – Dahl himself is a polarizing figure with a complicated legacy. In 1990, months before his death, he called himself an anti-Semite after years of hostile public comments about Jews in interviews.
Roald Dahl is as disturbing as he is loved. Can’t it be both?
In 2020, Dahl’s family issued an apology for the writer’s anti-Semitic “damaging remarks”, calling some of his remarks “incomprehensible”. Relatives said Dahl’s offensive comments were “a stark contrast to the man we knew”.
Ron Charles in Washington contributed reporting.