A major publishing house has revised some of Roald Dahl’s children’s books. Why did it do it?
“I don’t know any writer really who is set out to become a writer.”Roald Dahl, 1989 documentary
Roald Dahl was a former fighter pilot and spy from Cardiff who went on to sell 300 million children’s books.
“If you could find a good plot, that’s the first step in writing… then you’ve got to embroider it and enlarge it and it’s got to be something fairly crazy.”Roald Dahl, 1989 documentary
Over a 55-year career, he wrote dozens of novels, short stories, and poetry collections, including Matilda, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox.
“I think the BFG is a bit of a favourite character of mine, because he’s kind and people think I only write about beastly things.”Roald Dahl, 1989 documentary
His books have been enjoyed by generations of children but the author was no stranger to controversy.
Roald Dahl was accused of racism after depicting the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Family as slaves imported from, quote, “the deepest and darkest parts of the African jungle”.
And he was a vocal antisemite.
“In one notorious interview with the New Statesman magazine, the bestselling children’s author said: ‘There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity. Maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-jews. I mean there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere. Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.’”Sky News Australia
Roald Dahl’s books were for kids, but they were laced with cruelty… and that’s why some parts have been rewritten.
“A new generation of readers might find passages that have been altered from the original text. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper detailing hundreds of word changes made to UK editions by Dahl’s publisher and the Roald Dahl Story Company.”TODAY
Roald Dahl’s publisher Puffin has made a host of revisions to the latest versions of his books.
Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no longer enormously fat, just enormous.
Trunchbull in Matilda no longer calls her pupils a bunch of midgets but a bunch of squirts.
And Mrs Twit from The Twits is no longer ugly.
Puffin said it was “not unusual for publishers to review and update language, as the meaning and impact of words change over time”.
And whilst there was some support from public figures, others, like writer Salman Rushdie and the prime minister Rishi Sunak, criticised the decision.
So Puffin backtracked a little.
The publishing house announced that they would release The Roald Dahl Classic Collection, keeping the earlier texts in print and giving parents a choice between the originals and the reworked versions.
But what was behind the decision to change them in the first place?
In a conversation with the painter Francis Bacon that was released by the Guardian last month, Roald Dahl railed against the idea that people might change his books after he died.
“I’ve warned my publishers that if they, later on, so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!
“When I am gone, if that happens, then I’ll wish mighty Thor knocks very hard on their heads with his Mjolnir.”Roald Dahl
But revisions have been fairly common in children’s literature.
For example, abridged versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Little Women were published in the 20th century.
And these latest changes to Roald Dahl’s books were signed off by his family.
The Dahl estate sold the rights to his books to Netflix in 2021, for a reported $686 million dollars.
But it was a year earlier that Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company, an offshoot of Roald Dahl’s literary estate led by his grandson, began a review of the writer’s works.
They used an organisation called Inclusive Minds, which says it works with the children’s book world to support them in, quote, “authentic representation”.
It doesn’t edit or rewrite texts. It just advises the publisher.
Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company would have made the final decision about what to change in Roald Dahl’s books.
Ever since the Daily Telegraph published its story about the rewriting of Roald Dahl’s books a lot has been written about the role of sensitivity readers in the publishing industry.
They are people who read texts to spot cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes or problematic language.
Here’s one talking to Tortoise in 2021.
“Something I tell every one of my authors is that I am not here to tell you what to put or not to put in your novel, your piece, whatever it is. I am here to basically give you a better informed sense of what you’re writing about… if people are going to be engaging with topics that they have limited experience with, I’m here to help approach them a little bit more knowledgeably.”Ronkwahrhakónha Dube, Tortoise ThinkIn, October 2021
They’re a normal part of the editing process, because publishers want to avoid being embarrassed by things they publish and if they’re relying on a book to make them money they want it to be right for the intended audience.
They mainly read unpublished manuscripts to make sure they’re right before publication, but classics like Roald Dahl’s novels continue to sell.
His publishers initially defended its revisions by saying they had a significant responsibility to protect younger readers and that the changes were minimal.
But it’s also likely there was a big commercial impulse too, especially for the Roald Dahl Story Company which made £27 million in 2020, and £26 million the year before.
With new Netflix adaptations on the way these books need to be palatable for a new generation of readers.
This may be less about sensitivity, and more about making money.
This episode was written by Xavier Greenwood and mixed by Imy Harper.