As it happens, I have spent quite a lot of time over the past decade reading Roald Dahl books with small children as part of a side hustle in tutoring English. Matilda, The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits: all of them. All these books have moments in them that are a little sticky for modern readers, and that you can contextualize for children, if you want to. I think, from experience, that even small children are capable of understanding something like “In the past, more people thought it was OK to be rude about people who were different from them, but now we don’t do that because it’s upsetting/unfair/wrong.” Dahl’s books are full of material that needs a little explaining to kids, but perhaps more importantly here, the world’s full of other children’s books. I choose to read these to kids because I feel comfortable helping kids through them. It is not required.
I mention all of this, obviously, because of a new episode in a doomed and stupid enterprise of our times: Yet again, adults are getting angry online about children’s books. It was announced earlier this week that the Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights to the late author’s books, worked in conjunction with Puffin, the books’ publisher, and a collective who campaign to make children’s literature more inclusive, on what they call “small and carefully considered” changes to the texts, to ensure Dahl’s books “continue to be enjoyed by all children today.” These have apparently included changes to language regarding things like weight, mental health, gender, violent behavior, and race, and whole extra sentences added about topics such as why it’s OK for women to wear wigs, in The Witches.
What’s interesting about this unneeded controversy is that I haven’t so far seen anybody, anywhere on the political spectrum, who thinks this is a good idea. Loudmouths on the right think it’s “woke cancel culture” nonsense, and loudmouths on the left think it smacks of literary censorship. So why has this happened?
Listen: Roald Dahl was a shitbag. This is known. In an infamous 1983 interview, he said that “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.” He was, by some accounts, a more general racist, a misogynist, a bully. I understand the publisher’s impulse to look at these works, which bear marks of the views of their author, and want to try to buff them to a higher shine under the gaze of the contemporary world. Generally, though, I don’t think it serves anybody very well if we scrub away everything that is troubling in this way.
It’s uncomfortable that the world has changed, and that many cultural works of a time before now still exist and are enjoyable. Sometimes, it’s an obvious move to make small changes to a literary text to update it for modern audiences. Surely few would dispute, for example, that changing the name of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None from what it used to be removed offensive language while preserving the value of the work.
But what’s happened here is more extensive, and much less obvious in its merit. What Puffin has actually done in this case is a mess. For instance, Augustus Gloop will be “enormous” rather than “fat.” This performs no sensitivity purpose, because the character is fat. Much of his strand of the plot revolves around this fact. And even taking the word “fat” out at all implies that fat is an insult in and of itself, rather than a descriptor of one possible body type. What has been achieved here?
This whole thing also seems like a misunderstanding about what is appealing about the world of Roald Dahl in the first place. Or not, in fact, a misunderstanding, but something closer to a cynical attempt to sanitize the I.P. before Netflix gets their hands on it to pump out a load of new Dahl adaptations, as they will be doing in the coming years after a deal with the Roald Dahl Story Company. Puffin can change lines like “so I shipped them all over here—every man, woman and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe” to “so, they all agreed to come over—each and every Oompa Loompa.” Fine, but do we now need more detail on how the Oompa-Loompas are being compensated fairly for their work? Does any child in the world give a shit about that? I’m being facetious, but the point is that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a horrible little story in many ways. Changing specific phrases doesn’t change the shape of these books themselves. They are nasty books. Dahl was a nasty writer for adults as well: His short stories are some of the most memorable and twisted things I’ve read. The Twits is about a husband and a wife torturing each other for fun. In Matilda, a little boy is forced to eat an entire chocolate cake until he is almost sick as a punishment. In George’s Marvelous Medicine, George kills his grandmother by shrinking her out of existence. The nastiness is a feature, not a bug.
You can choose not to read these books to your children, should you wish, and you would have fair reasons. Or you can do a bit of course-correction while reading them. And it’s a course-correction that has to be done with children all the time, anyway. Recently, I was having a drawing contest with a 6-year-old. She picked the theme: princesses, because it’s almost always princesses. She started to draw hers, and when she drew the body, it came out round. “She looks a bit fat,” she said, wrinkling her nose. I said that was OK—the princess can be fat. And she thought about it, shrugged, and we carried on drawing. I don’t say this to go: hark at me, great woke savior and influencer of young minds. I just mean that it’s pretty easy to do, and would be just as easy to do while reading.