Critics are accusing the British publisher of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books of censorship after it removed colorful language from works such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda to make them more acceptable to modern readers.
A review of new editions of Dahl’s books now available in bookstores shows that certain passages relating to weight, mental health, gender and race have been changed. The changes made by Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Random House, were first reported by the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph.
Augustus Gloop, Charlie’s gluttonous antagonist in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, originally published in 1964, is no longer “hugely fat”, just “huge”. In the new edition of Witches, a supernatural woman posing as an ordinary woman can work as a “top scientist or run a business” instead of as a “supermarket cashier or writing letters for a businessman”.
The word “black” was dropped from the description of the fearsome tractors in 1970’s The Fabulous Mr Fox. The machines are now simply “murderous, brutal monsters”.
Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie was one of those who reacted angrily to the rewriting of Dahl’s words. Rushdie lived in hiding for years after Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for his death over the alleged blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses. He was attacked and was seriously injured last year at an event in upstate New York.
“Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship,” Rushdie wrote on Twitter. “Puffin Books and Dahl’s estate should be ashamed.”
The changes to Dahl’s books mark the latest skirmish in a debate about cultural sensitivity as activists try to protect young people from cultural, ethnic and gender stereotypes in literature and other media. Critics complain revisions to suit 21st-century sensibilities risk undermining the genius of great artists and preventing readers from confronting the world as it is.
The Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights to the books, said it worked with Puffin to review the texts because it wanted to ensure “Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today”.
The language was reviewed in collaboration with Inclusive Minds, a collective working to make children’s literature more inclusive and accessible. All changes were “small and carefully considered,” the company said.
It said the analysis started in 2020, before Netflix bought the Roald Dahl Story Company and began plans to produce a new generation of films based on the author’s books.
“When publishing new editions of books written several years ago, it is not uncommon to review the language used along with updating other details, including a book’s cover and page layout,” the company said. “Our guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the stories, the characters and the irreverent and sharp-edged spirit of the original text.”
Puffin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Dahl died in 1990 at the age of 74. His books, which have sold more than 300 million copies, have been translated into 68 languages and continue to be read by children around the world.
But he is also a controversial figure due to anti-Semitic comments throughout his life.
The Dahl family apologized in 2020, saying they acknowledged the “lasting and understandable harm caused by Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitic remarks”.
Regardless of his personal failings, fans of Dahl’s books praise his use of sometimes dark language that exploits children’s fears, as well as their sense of fun.
PEN America, a community of 7,500 writers that advocates for free speech, said it was “concerned” by reports of the changes to Dahl’s books.
“If we start down the path of trying to correct for perceived flaws instead of allowing readers to receive and respond to books as written, we risk distorting the work of great writers and clouding the essential lens that literature offers on society,” tweeted Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America.
Laura Hackett, a childhood Dahl fan who is now deputy literary editor of London’s Sunday Times, had a more personal reaction to the news.
“The editors at Puffin should be ashamed of the botched operation they have carried out on some of the finest children’s literature in Britain,” she wrote. “As for me, I will carefully stow away my old original copies of Dahl’s stories, so that one day my children can enjoy them in their full, nasty, colorful glory.”