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“Correcting” classics

Changes to Roald Dahl’s books weren’t updating but uptelling

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In the words of Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy, “That escalated quickly.”

It began with the news that U.K. publishing house Puffin Books would change future editions of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books to feature kinder-and-gentler, inoffensive language. Dahl, best known for creating worlds in which vicious teachers swung ­little girls by their pigtails and piggish boys met their fate in chocolate rivers, was not a kind and gentle author. But his extravagant plots always resolved in a blunt moral: Good guys receive their reward and bad guys get their comeuppance. Four generations of young readers have delighted in the message, as much as in the giant peaches and Big Friendly Giants (BFG).

For the new editions, Puffin subjected Dahl’s works to Inclusive Minds, a consulting service “with a passion for inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature.” Dahl’s estate gave its blessing; the author himself, who died of cancer in 1990, had nothing to say about it. Though known for a spiky personality, he was not unreceptive to criticism, as he changed the original Oompa-Loompas of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from African pygmies to “little fantasy creatures” of Loompaland (where the Whangdoodles roam).

But imagine his reaction to the recommendations of Inclusive Mind reviewers. Negative uses of “black” and “white,” triggering adjectives like “ugly” and “crazy,” gendered language, and even whole sentences were rewritten to avoid offense. The UK Telegraph broke the story, with a list of over 100 changes to the text. Howls of outrage ensued on both sides of the Atlantic. (Puffin’s U.S. affiliate announced that nothing would change in American editions.) Notable personages like Queen Consort Camilla and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak chimed in. “We shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words,” Sunak’s spokesman explained, echoing the BFG. After two weeks of outcry, Puffin compromised, agreeing to publish two editions: one with the sanitized language and the classic version with its dagger-like adjectives intact.

All’s well in Dahlville. For now.

Laying rough hands on beloved classics isn’t new. Last year, when the copyright expired on Winnie-the-Pooh characters, filmmaker Rhys Frake-Waterfield lost no time in creating Blood and Honey, a low-budget slasher flick in which Pooh and Piglet take vengeance on Christopher Robin for growing up. The movie was a surprise hit in Mexico before opening in the United States last month. Its success probably owes more to novelty than perversion. But before the novelty fades, more iconoclasts will circle like sharks around childhood companions who have lost their copyright protection. (Watch for Bambi: The Reckoning.)

The slasherization of Pooh is disturbing but probably short-lived, while “corrections” to the classics may be only beginning. Before announcing the two-editions compromise, Puffin defended its changes, citing its ­“significant responsibility” to protect young readers, as Dahl’s books “might be the first time they are navigating written content without a parent, teacher, or carer.”

The publisher-as-carer role should make any parent laugh, squirm, and seethe. Even assuming good intentions, the sensitivity editions of Roald Dahl probably have less to do with protecting children than protecting the publisher from wokish protests. Puffin also “protects” children with a line of LGBTQIA+ books for ages 0-12, like My Daddies! and The Extraordinary Life of Freddie Mercury. If the market demands My Daddies!, fair enough. But there was no demand to subject Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to sensitivity training.

In Dahl’s broad-stroke world, wickedness is ugly both inside and out. Evil has no charm. His villains are not appealing but repellent. Children understand this from a gut level, which is one reason why these stories have endured. Publishers take note: It’s a short step from inclusion to intrusion, and from updating to uptelling—shaping young minds to current biases. Roald Dahl may be the only contrary voice they hear. Leave him alone.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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