First, They Censored Roald Dahl. Then They Came For Everything Else

In a perverse distortion of some of the greatest literary works for children, Puffin Books has teamed up with Inclusive Minds, a collective for people passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children's literature, to censor Roald Dahl's books.

By Jaimee Marshall4 min read

Roald Dahl has published some of history's most famous children's books, many of which have been adapted into feature films, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and Matilda. However, now they're getting a language update of the sort many across the political spectrum find appalling.

The Changes Made to Dahl's Work

"Sensitivity readers" have poured through Dahl's stories to update them to modern sensibilities and protect children from stereotypes regarding gender, race, and culture perpetrated through literature. Changing words in a classic work of literature is bad enough, but these changes are more significant than mere swaps of synonyms. From replacing certain character descriptions with more palatable words and omitting other passages entirely to including disclaimers at the bottom of the page, they're meaningful changes that entirely alter the meaning and context of its passages. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's Augustus Gloops is no longer described as "fat," instead he's just "enormous." Oompa Loompas are now "small people" rather than "small men," and Mrs. Twit in The Twits is no longer "ugly and beastly" but instead just "beastly." The cloud men in James and the Giant Peach are now cloud people. 

Hundreds of changes were made to Dahl's various works, mostly replacing what were deemed to be offensive descriptors with less harsh commentary and removing explicit references to binary gender. In Matilda, mothers and fathers of schoolchildren are now merely referred to as "parents." The clumsiest revision is probably in The Witches, where it's revealed that the witches wear wigs to cover their bald heads. Instead of leaving it at that, this passage has been added: "There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that." A witch in The Witches is no longer a chambermaid but instead a cleaner. Most ridiculously, a line in The Fantastic Mr. Fox describing a tractor as black has been removed.

Hundreds of changes were made to Dahl's work, mostly replacing “offensive” descriptors and explicit references to binary gender.

A disclaimer at the bottom of these books also informs the reader, "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." Can it really be enjoyed by all today, though? Of course not. No version of any book can be loved by all. It's bound to offend, disappoint, or anger someone for some reason. Therein lies the central problem behind these changes: They're pointless. For one, they don't eradicate offensive terminology. Why stop at "fat" but not at "enormous”? Arbitrary lines have been drawn in the sand – ones that set a dangerous precedent. 

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, an organization committed to preserving freedom of speech in literature, puts it perfectly. She said in a thread on Twitter, "The problem with taking license to re-edit classic works is that there is no limiting principle. You start out wanting to replace a word here and a word there and end up inserting entirely new ideas (as has been done to Dahl's work)." Nossel articulates how attempts to ban or censor books posit a dangerous societal weapon that, when wielded by people who don't share the same sensibilities and values as your own, will soon come after you too. 

Why Literature Is Better Left Untouched

Roald Dahl has become a controversial figure over the years because of his antisemitic remarks during his life, but this not uncommon. There have been many debates over the years about separating the art from the artist. The edits made to Dahl's books have nothing to do with the valid criticisms of him as a person. Rather, they're quite silly censorious oversteps that completely alter culturally important stories that have entertained and brought joy to children for decades. 

Even more insidious is what they chose to censor: references to gender, ugliness, and even descriptors of color that had nothing to do with people. Even for the radically gender inclusive who believe gender is a spectrum, removing references to men and women is extreme. Men and women represent the rule, not the exception. Intersex people are only 1.7% of the population, and the trans population is also incredibly small. Who benefits from pretending that men and women aren't the vast majority of society? Erasing references to fatness and ugliness drastically changes not just the meaning, but the lessons of Dahl's stories. Augustus Gloop is an archetypal character representing gluttony, overconsumption, and greed. It has been represented as a sin for thousands of years for a reason. It's a vice, not something to be celebrated. The removal of Gloop's "fatness" suggests ushering in a new era with an erasure of standards, where fatness is normalized as virtuous – but it isn't. It represents a lack of restraint, low impulse control, a lack of emotional regulation, and a disregard for your own health. 

No version of any book can be loved by all. It's bound to offend, disappoint, or anger someone for some reason. 

This ghastly offense to alter important works of literature to avoid offending people won't stop at Roald Dahl. In recent years, books like Huckleberry Finn that use offensive and racist language have faced pressure to be pulled from schools or censored. This would be a reprehensible mistake. Literature should never be tampered with, as even the most offensive and condemnable works have something to teach us – messages that become lost when the original work has been tampered with. Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird are supposed to make you uncomfortable. They're supposed to imbue upon you the racist sentiments of the age, and that message is lost when it's watered down, erased, or manipulated into something it wasn't meant to be. When you start rewriting classic literature, you begin to rewrite history.

It Won't Stop at Dahl: An Argument for Physical Over the Digital

Well-meaning attempts to be inclusive and promote diversity end up polluting that which needn't be touched. To accept this brazen revisionism would be to cower to an ideological mob hellbent on making dialogue sterile and dishonest, not to mention lacking creativity or sincerity. The words "fat," "women," "female," "ugly," and so on serve real purposes in the stories, and even if their usage were inappropriate and intentionally offensive, it would still be wrong to remove them from the original work. Artists ought to have their creative and artistic integrity preserved. It's often the most controversial artwork that endures through time, prompting worthwhile, fruitful debate and different interpretations. 

Should we desecrate art that provokes us, makes us think, and causes a stir? Of course not. It would be an affront to the artist. Why, then, is it acceptable to edit famous literature written decades ago? Molly-coddling children and adolescents by preventing them from having to come into contact with anything that might cause them to feel anything that could be controversial is doing them a grave disservice. It is one of the key offenses that is leading to prolonged adolescence – a phenomenon where 25-year-olds still view themselves as children. As we embark into an increasingly digital world, you would think physical possessions would become obsolete. However, this is just one example of how preserving something in its original form is something they cannot take away from you. 

E-book reader apps such as Kindle were automatically updating the e-books with the newly censored versions even if people had previously purchased the uncensored versions. Due to a sweeping uproar from critics, Puffin responded by providing readers the option to choose the uncensored version by releasing The Roald Dahl Classic Collection under Puffin's parent company, Penguin. However, this was only done after Puffin received overwhelming online backlash, and this only applies to the print version of these books. The message is clear: You will read only censored works, you will not have control over your own intellectual property, and you will be happy. Hold onto what’s left of your physical possessions because the digital is up for seizure. 

Closing Thoughts

What would Dahl think about the desecration of his stories if he were alive today? We don't have to imagine – he warned this day would come! Dahl reportedly told Francis Bacon in a recording while he was still alive, "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!" 

He went on, "When I am gone, if that happens, then I'll wish mighty Thor knocks very hard on their heads with his Mjolnir. Or I will send along the 'enormous crocodile' to gobble them up." Dahl was referring to the crocodile in his novel The Enormous Crocodile, a story about a greedy crocodile that eats little children. 

While his statement is hyperbolic, he clearly didn’t want his stories messed with by ideologues. What message does this send to children when we tell them in one breath that they shouldn't let the world put limitations on their wildest imaginations and then impose strict limitations on those ideas in the next?

Don’t miss anything! Sign up for our weekly newsletter and get curated content weekly!