A brief history of sensitivity edits to children’s literature

A brief history of sensitivity edits to children’s literature

Puffin Books have worked with the consultancy Inclusive Minds (who say they help publishers, authors and illustrators work towards authentic inclusion, accessibility, and diverse representation) to revise some of the language used in Roald Dahl’s books for children, more than 100 years after his birth.

The story has attracted mass attention. UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and author Salman Rushdie have both expressed their disagreement with this approach to Dahl’s work. However, it is not unusual for books for children to undergo revisions for new generations.

Physician Thomas Bowdler rewrote Shakespeare’s plays for a family audience in the early 1800s, removing content he deemed inappropriate from the Bard’s previously published works. Charles Dickens wrote a furious essay in 1853 called Frauds on the Fairies criticising his former friend and illustrator George Cruikshank’s retelling of several fairy tales, which incorporated an anti-alcohol message.

Abridged versions of classic works aimed at children were routinely published in the 20th century, including Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women and books not originally written for children, such as Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Contemporary edits to Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl agreed in 1973 to remove racist language from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, originally published in 1964. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) objected to Dahl’s original portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas as African “pygmies”.

In Dahl’s original story, the Oompa-Loompas were smuggled by Willy Wonka in packing cases with holes in the side for air, which carried echoes of both the Gold Coast slave labour used to produce chocolate in the 19th and early 20th Century and the transatlantic slave trade. The NAACP further threatened to boycott the 1971 film before its release over concerns about depictions of the Oompa-Loompas.

Gene Wilder wears a top hat, surrounded by orange-faced Oompa-Loompas.
Gene Wilder poses with the Oompa-Loompas from the 1971 adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

In a letter to The Horn Book, a magazine of children’s literature in 1973, Doris Bass of Dahl’s US publishers Alfred A. Knopf wrote that the changes made did not amount to “censorship”. Bass insisted that:

To be sensitive and responsive to the changes in consciousness over the past decade isn’t liberal or reactionary (terms which have primarily political connotations) nor is it censorship. It’s just trying to be ‘good people’ as one’s own awareness of other people’s feelings and needs is expanded.

Dahl’s antisemitism was widely reported around the time of his death. His editors had entered discussions regarding the misogyny and racism in some of his other books. In some cases he listened and in others, he didn’t. Eventually, his US publishers had enough of his truculent behaviour and threatened to stop publishing him.

When children’s books fall out of favour

Children’s authors can fall out of popularity if they no longer resonate with readers. Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings series and Richmal Crompton’s Just William were still widely read during my childhood in the 1970s. Nowadays they are more often found in secondhand bookshops than libraries.

Libraries have a finite amount of space and if a book is no longer being borrowed, they will replace it with more a more contemporary text that children will enjoy reading.

Enid Blyton’s books have also been revised and updated for young modern audiences, including renaming some of the characters from the Faraway Tree series. Like Dahl, Blyton was challenged by her editors and publishers during her career, with her publisher declining to publish one of her books in 1960 because of its xenophobia.

Black and white photograph shows Enid Blyton arranging daffodils in a vase.
Children’s author Enid Blyton in 1963.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Criticism of Blyton for her classist attitudes, her limited vocabulary and stereotyped characters began during her lifetime. Like Dahl, she was never universally lauded.

Modernising the language of the Famous Five series did not prove popular, and in 2016 publisher Hachette abandoned the revisions. This may eventually be the case with the revisions to Dahl’s work, though in September 2021, it was announced that streaming giant Netflix had bought the Roald Dahl Story Company for a reported £500 million.

Netflix is thought to be in production of an animated version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in partnership with actor and director Taika Waititi as well as an animated series based on Matilda.

Dahl is still one of the most borrowed authors from British libraries. He was the 6th most borrowed author on the British Library Public Lending Rights children’s list of 2020/2021, alongside contemporary authors of comic children’s fiction such as Francesca Simon, Liz Pichon and Jeff Kinney.

Read more:
In the far from diverse publishing industry, sensitivity readers are vital

It is in Netflix and Puffin’s interest to maintain Dahl’s popularity and preserve the books for future readers. Contemporary children’s author, Philip Pullman, suggests that instead of editing them, Dahl should be allowed to go out of print, as children’s books, including prizewinning works, so often do.

Joan Aiken’s wonderful Mortimer and Arabel books and Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawn series have spent time out of print, although both have been revived by contemporary dramatisations. Perhaps Netflix’s adaptations will do the same for Dahl, preserving the essence of his popularity, while removing the dehumanising language that many adults and children find objectionable.

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