February 24, 2023

Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether sanitising Roald Dahl’s children’s books is a good idea. We also look at the implementation of facial recognition technology in Tirupathi (Andhra Pradesh), among other news.


Rewriting Roald Dahl: Inclusivity or Censorship?

(Image credits: Flickr)

Puffin Books and the Roald Dahl Story Company have made hundreds of changes to Roald Dahl’s books in what they describe as an attempt to make reading enjoyable and accessible to modern readers. Criticism of this move is coloured with diverse voices, from prominent authors, freedom of speech activists, and politicians all rallying against the practice of rewriting deceased authors’ books.

The publishers maintain, however, that in modifying the phrases, no meanings were gobblefunked. Instead, they simply adapted the language to modern sensibilities. Why has a children’s author sparked such an outrage in the first place? And does rewriting Roald Dahl accomplish what it sets out to do?


Words matter, said Puffin Books, as they published the latest edition of Roald Dahl’s books. Dahl died in 1990, but his spiky and musical oeuvre remains favoured still among children and adults. The movie adaptations of his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, the Witches, and the $686 million deal through which Netflix bagged the rights to the books all ensured a place for Dahl’s characters in generations of pop culture to come.

Dahl’s stories are replete with mischief, humour, magic, and ick, and children have been eating it all up for decades. Like all authors, he too was a product of his times, and his work often reflects the misogyny and racism that the man must have espoused. A favourite villain in his works is the caricature of an evil, despotic, smelly, fat, ugly woman. Outside the fictionalised world, Dahl’s antisemitism is well-documented.

But the literary world is replete with such authors and fictional characters that are morally grey yet widely loved. What’s so wrong that he has written that others haven’t? The problem for many is that children dominate Dahl’s readership. Exposing them to malicious, over-apparent prejudice would harm their cognition or dampen the book’s popularity.

In the history of literature, there is an uncomfortable place and precedent for censoring and banning books. Especially children’s books. Back in the day, people in the west banned children’s books that were anti-christian, had non-standard English, or simply had child characters disrespecting authority.

Unequal power relations drive the adults’ impulse to regulate and control what children are reading. Children’s literature then becomes an instrument for instilling the kind of sensibilities that adults would like children to have. Rewriting Dahl is a symptom of this impulse to monitor the content children consume and perhaps to prevent alienating those whom it offends.

So, what are some of these changes that will presumably effectuate inclusivity? Some safe adjustments that the editors have made are turning “ladies and gentlemen” into folks, “Cloud-men” became “Cloud-people”, and “Him” became “Them”. And then there are those that risk fudging the original meaning, like how a hilarious advisory against yanking women’s hair to check if they are witches turned into a dull teaching moment.

VIEW: No place for discriminatory dialogue

With over 250 million copies of his books sold worldwide, Roald Dahl holds the mantle of being one of the most successful children’s authors. He is also one of those authors whose problematic worldview seeps into the fictionalised worlds that he creates and may alienate some children. The adult-impulse argument suggests that children at this age may imbibe the prejudice contained in the book.

In these troubled waters, the publishers have taken up the onus of maintaining the storylines, the magic, and the literary essence that defines his work while also addressing the overtly discriminatory language that the author uses. Inclusive Minds, the firm that helped Puffin Books make changes, argues that mainstream books should have authentic representation and inclusion of diverse voices.

Some teachers corroborate this view, arguing that as newer generations become more inclusive in practice than previous generations, their tastes change too. New-generation children may be averse to reading books that use overt pejoratives for racial and gender minorities.

Puffin Books has edited some of the narration and dialogues to build a bridge between modern values of inclusivity and Dahl’s fictional world. The publishers argue that while issuing new prints of old books, reviewing the language and other details is not unorthodox. It’s part of the publishers’ job to update the book cover and layout, too, so that the book design conveys the author’s message in ways that suit prevailing aesthetic values.

COUNTERVIEW: Pruning the past is not inclusivity

At the outset, Puffin Books’ rewriting approach seems to protect its own interests rather than the idea of inclusivity. It is true that modern sensibilities, in many ways, differ from the past. It is also a valid argument that newer generations are more inclusive and tolerant than the previous ones. In such cases, the book’s popularity will plunge, and people will no longer read it. But it is so that the publishers can continue to make money from Dahl’s work that makes modern sensibilities an imperative.

Rewriting Dahl implies rewriting history and sanitising the past of its injustices and prejudice. Children’s books hold a mirror to social currents and have proved a useful tool for historians to dig into the gruesome aspects of the past. Expunging a hundred overtly prejudicial phrases will surely not change the prejudicial undertones that propel Dahl’s stories. Puffin Books’ move sets a dangerous precedent for tying a ribbon around implicit racism and misogyny.

The past is not the right place to search for inclusivity. Critics argue that changing the author’s language constitutes censorship, even if done with the “right intention”. Censorship is not about the content that has changed but the liberty the publishers have taken to change the author’s language to avoid offending people. While adding inclusive pronouns may fall under the purview of revising outdated language, subjecting phrases to moral correctness is blatant censorship.

This selective motivation to edit children’s books undermines the judgement and choice children can exercise about the books they wish to read. A better way to prepare children for malicious content inside the book would be to add a disclaimer contextualising the problems with Dahl. The author’s description in Dahl’s books mentions his work ethic and love for yellow-coloured pencils. Perhaps including his problematic views would be a good place to start.

Reference Links:

What is your opinion on this?
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a) Rewriting Roald Dahl’s books sets the stage for inclusive writing.

b) Rewriting Roald Dahl’s books sets the stage for censorship.


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