Older, unexpurgated editions of Roald Dahl’s children’s books might soon become highly sought-after collector’s items. Puffin, the publisher of the British author’s well-loved classics, has removed any ‘offensive’ language from its recent editions.
Through hundreds of changes, which an in-depth examination by The Daily Telegraph brought to light, character descriptions in particular have been subject to cutting and alteration.
To each of the author’s books from its catalog, Puffin has added a notice on the copyright page; it states that however “wonderful” the words of Roald Dahl (who died in 1990) are, “words matter,” and that since the book “was written many years ago,” the publisher regularly reviews the language “to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”
Through this drive for inoffensive ‘inclusivity’, adjectives such as “fat” and “ugly” fall to the wayside within Dahl’s universe. For example, the glutinous character of Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no longer “fat,” but “enormous.” In that same work, the iconic Oompa Loompas are no longer “little men,” but “little people.”
In Dahl’s The Twits, Mrs. Twit is no longer “ugly and beastly,” but, happily for her, “beastly” only.
Wherever possible, consideration has also been given to ‘gender-neutral’ descriptions. The Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach are now the Cloud-People. In some passages, however, the choice has been made to assign an undisclosed sex as female, such as ‘The Small Foxes’, the name for Mr. and Mrs. Fox’s children in Fantastic Mr. Fox, who now are all female.
Perhaps more bewildering, in Matilda, a mention of 19th-century author Rudyard Kipling (vilified in some circles over his ‘colonialist’ mindset), whom the precocious eponymous child had been reading, has been cut and replaced with the more politically correct and—perhaps more importantly, female—Jane Austen.
Another egregious case of such tampering is perhaps The Witches, a prime target as the book paints (a select group) of women in an unflattering light. “Great flock of ladies” becomes “great group of ladies.” “You must be mad, woman!” becomes “You must be out of your mind!” while “the old hag” becomes “the old crow.”
A spokesman for the Roald Dahl Story Company, which manages the copyrights and trademarks of the author’s work, says it is not unusual to revise language during a new printing and that “any changes made have been small and carefully considered.” Their guiding principle throughout, he added, had been “to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text.”
Still, the Company’s explanation has done little to appease critics, as attested by the heated debate the news has stirred, especially online.
Renowned British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie decries the trend. “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed,” he wrote.
Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s preeminent women fiction writers, laments the “radically revised” prose, noting that “if Dahl is so egregious as to require such wholesale whitewashing (sic) why republish him at all?”
She also remarked on the publisher’s reliance on so-called ‘sensitivity readers,’ who she believed “should be noted as collaborations,” as it is “unfair to readers to be deceived into thinking that they are reading the original work.”
In Western publishing, the use of such ‘sensitivity readings,’ in which books are screened for material that might be upsetting, is quickly becoming common practice.
Revisions to Dahl’s books started in 2020 in partnership with Inclusive Minds, which describes itself as 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.”
The following year, Netflix acquired the Roald Dahl Story Company, opening the door to future film adaptations which, no doubt, will be equally brought ‘up-to-date’.