In the spirit of openness and transparency which this espresso is wrapped in, no one wanted to touch this one. Like a veritable hot potato, it got shunted from email to email, outraged squawks insisting we discuss it accompanied by – do you want to give this a go? And you can guess why. This is culture war at its finest, where the snobby woke clash with the slobbering right, made even more thorny by the fact that this particular discussion involves a national treasure – Roald Dahl.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably read that Puffin Books, Roald Dahl’s publishers, have used sensitivity readers to do a language review across the collection “to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.” So, language like “fat” and “ugly” and descriptions using the colours “black” and “white” have been cut, and anything relating to mental health, race, gender, violence or stereotyping (‘The Witches’ discussions that a woman might be “working as a cashier in a supermarket” is now “working as a top scientist”, sigh) has been rewritten. Journalists from the Daily Telegraph, that paragon of neutrality, found that ‘The Witches’ alone had 59 changes, with hundreds more across other favourites like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG and Matilda.
The sensitivity writers Puffin hired were from an organisation called ‘Inclusive Minds’, whose manifesto is “a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature, and are committed to changing the face of children’s books.” This all sounds very worthy, but encouraging more modern books that champion and represent people from all corners of the earth isn’t the same as scrubbing the dirt off old books – is it? Puffin claim sensitivity. Critics cry censorship.
We should probably jump in here and just say – we know Roald Dahl was an arsehole. He was a bully and a misogynist, and his estate publicly apologised in 2020 for his antisemitism. He’s not alone. Enid Blyton was definitely racist. So was Hergé. Lewis Carroll was creepily into young girls. J.M. Barrie’s treatment of Native Americans in Peter Pan was horribly problematic. But they all created some of children’s undeniably finest literature.
Progress is important. Clearly, offensive language and lazy stereotyping has no place in modern children’s books (*cough* Peppa Pig *cough*) but to look back at literature that was written in a wildly different time and rewrite it in an attempt to drag it into this decade, is patronising and history-denying. What next – we find all the old books we can’t edit and chuck them on a bonfire? (Sounds familiar…) Reading should spark debate and discovery and research, from the earliest age, not be smoothed out into a pleasant, saccharine, vanilla disaster. Surely even Boris Bogtrotter would turn his nose up at that.
* Less than a week later, Puffin caved and announced the additional release of the Roald Dahl Classic Collection “to keep the author’s classic texts in print”. Twitter will be more juicy, but you can read Puffin’s press release here