Today’ Telegraph devotes two entire pages (and there is even more on its subscribers only internet site as well as three paragraphs of editorial) to a detailed description of the changes made to Roald Dahl’s books by sensitivity editors under the supervision of Puffin, a Penguin Random House imprint. Ultimate control resides in Netflix which bought the books in 2021 for $686 million. Puffin is the largest publisher of childrens’ books globally. The article is written by Ed Cumming, Genevieve Holl-Allan and Benedict Smith.
““Words matter,” begins the discreet notice, which sits at the bottom of the copyright page of Puffin’s latest editions of Roald Dahl’s books. “The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous characters. This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”
“Put simply: these may not be the words Dahl wrote. The publishers have given themselves licence to edit the writer as they see fit, chopping, altering and adding where necessary to bring his books in line with contemporary sensibilities. By comparing the latest editions with earlier versions of the texts, The Telegraph has found hundreds of changes to Dahl’s stories. Language related to weight, mental health, violence, gender and race has been cut and rewritten. Hundreds of changes to some of the best-loved children’s books ever written. Even Quentin Blake’s illustrations do not make it through the sensitivity reading unscathed. Earlier editions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory include three sketches of Mike Teavee with 18 toy pistols “hanging from belts around his body”, but the guns have been scrubbed out by 2022, as well as a related sentence.
“Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company made the latest changes in conjunction with Inclusive Minds, which its spokesperson describes as “a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature”. Organisations such as Inclusive Minds have sprung up to help publishers navigate these newly choppy waters. Alexandra Strick, a co-founder of Inclusive Minds, says they “aim to ensure authentic representation, by working closely with the book world and with those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity”. To do this, they call on a team of “Inclusion Ambassadors” with a variety of “lived experience”. She says they mostly work with authors writing now, but are sometimes asked to work on older texts.
“When it came to children’s books, Matthew Dennison (a biographer of Dahl) says Dahl didn’t care what adults thought as long as his target readers were happy. “‘I don’t give a b—-r what grown-ups think,’ was a characteristic statement,” Dennison says. “And I’m almost certain that he would have recognised that alterations to his novels prompted by the political climate were driven by adults rather than children, and this always inspired derision, if not contempt, in Dahl. He never, for example, had any truck with librarians who criticised his books as too frightening, lacking moral role models, negative in their portrayal of women, etc,” he continues. “Dahl wrote stories intended to kindle in children a lifelong love of reading and to remind them of the childhood wonderlands of magic and enchantment, aims in which he succeeded triumphantly. Adult anxieties about political niceties didn’t register in this outlook. This said, although Dahl could be unabashed in offending adults, he took pains never to alienate or make unhappy his child readers.””
My view is that Puffin and Inclusive Minds have got it largely wrong. I grew up reading classic stories that were absolutely enchanting and also included violence and bits of racism and misogyny. I could have done without the latter two items, but in retrospect, I didn’t pay much attention to them, nor was I brainwashed by them. Children like stories with strange elements, and for this reason, I think that focusing on appearance, colour, weight, health, gender, and violence (up to a point) is actually counter productive. The story becomes too bland. I have a suspicion that most of the ‘Ambassadors’ of Inclusive Minds, while they may have some ‘lived experience’, none of their lived experience includes reading to six to thirteen year old children.