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The Roald Dahl purists have won.
After a week of controversy and outrage over imposed sensitivity changes to the words of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author, publisher Puffin has announced that a collection of 17 Dahl works will be re-released untouched as part of the Roald Dahl Classic Collection.
Netflix, which purchased the Roald Dahl Story Company in 2021 in a rumored $1 billion deal, had no comment on the development.
“We’ve listened to the debate over the past week, which has reaffirmed the extraordinary power of Roald Dahl’s books and the very real questions around how stories from another era can be kept relevant for each new generation,” says Francesca Dow, managing director of Penguin Random House Children’s.
“As a children’s publisher, our role is to share the magic of stories with children with the greatest thought and care,” Dow continues.
“Roald Dahl’s fantastic books are often the first stories young children will read independently, and taking care for the imaginations and fast-developing minds of young readers is both a privilege and a responsibility.
“We also recognize the importance of keeping Dahl’s classic texts in print.”
The Classic Collection will include archived materials relevant to the 17 books, many of which have been catnip to Hollywood and theater producers: Not just Chocolate Factory, but also The Witches, The BFG, Fantastic Mr. Fox and James and the Giant Peach have all seen successful screen and/or stage adaptations.
The capitulation comes after a week of heated debate over changes to the Dahl canon, which drew rebukes from the likes of Salman Rushdie and the Queen Consort herself, Camilla, who on Thursday told her book club, “Please remain true to your calling, unimpeded by those who may wish to curb the freedom of your expression or impose limits on your imagination. Enough said.”
The comments drew laughs and a round of applause.
The backlash took Puffin, the Roald Dahl Story Company, and its owner Netflix, by surprise.
“We want to ensure that Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today,” a Roald Dahl Story Company spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter after announcing changes. “When publishing new print runs of books written years ago, it’s not unusual to review the language used alongside updating other details including a book’s cover and page layout. Our guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text. Any changes made have been small and carefully considered.
“As part of our process to review the language used we worked in partnership with Inclusive Minds, a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature. The current review began in 2020, before Dahl was acquired by Netflix. It was led by Puffin and Roald Dahl Story Company together.”
And indeed, it is not entirely unusual for books, and particularly books for children, to undergo revisions for modern sensibilities. As far back as 1959, the Nancy Drew mystery series — written in 1930 — was ordered revised by publisher Grosset & Dunlap, partly to modernize and streamline the series, but also to remove negative racial stereotyping of African Americans.
The originals — racist stereotypes and all — were re-released in 1991 by Applewood Books to cash in on the nostalgia of Nancy Drew purists; a publisher’s note acknowledged the “racial and social stereotyping” in the books that could render a reader “extremely uncomfortable.”
In 2014, a beloved 1969 adaptation of Pippi Longstocking for Swedish TV was edited to remove racially insensitive material. Even those changes drew criticism, with a Stockholm columnist asking, “Where do we draw the line? What do we cut and what do we keep?”
The Dahl revisions, however, enter a grayer area. The changes were not made to excise explicit racism (though Dahl, as an avowed anti-Semite, was hardly immune to such things), but rather other areas that might draw offense.
His fatphobia, for example, is a running theme in many of his books. In light of new sensitivities to body-shaming, the word “fat” was removed from every book. Augustus Gloop, for example, the gluttonous German boy from Chocolate Factory, is instead described as “enormous.”
In James and the Giant Peach, a verse that originally went, “Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat / And tremendously flabby at that,” now reads, “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute / And deserved to be squashed by the fruit.”
The Oompa-Loompas, which Dahl originally described as African pygmies who love to eat cocoa beans, were changed by Dahl himself in 1973 to white workers after complaints from the NAACP that their depiction had overtones of slavery.
But the new version alters the description further. Instead of “tiny” or “no higher than my knee,” Puffin changed the language to merely “small.” And no longer are they “men.” Now they are referred to as “people.”
Frequent references to characters being “crazy” and “mad” have also been excised, as have the colors “black” and “white,” regardless of context. And one of the most objected-to changes, from The Witches, adds this very un-Dahl-sounding disclaimer in a passage about witches being secretly bald: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”
THR reached out to Inclusive Minds, the U.K.-based organization that assigned the Dahl works to “Inclusion Ambassadors” for input on how some of the material in the books could be harmful to young readers, for insight into how and why they arrived at the conclusions they did.
“We generally avoid discussing individual projects but we’d be happy to share some more information on how we work overall as an organization, including in regard to older titles,” says an Inclusive Minds representative.
The following is a statement from Inclusive Minds on its process:
Inclusive Minds is an organization that works with the children’s book world to support them in authentic representation, primarily by connecting those in the industry with those who have lived experience of any or multiple facets of diversity.
When Inclusive Minds launched over 10 years ago, it played a valuable role in helping to raise awareness of the importance of better and more authentic inclusion in children’s books. The organisation has always evolved with the changing needs of the industry and as awareness of the need for diversity and inclusion has dramatically risen in recent years there is less need for Inclusive Minds to campaign for books to be inclusive, and a greater need for the practical services we offer in terms of helping ensure authenticity.
Inclusive Minds do not write, edit or rewrite texts, but provide book creators with valuable insight from people with the relevant lived experience that they can take into consideration in the wider process of writing and editing.
Over the years, many children’s book publishers in the U.K. (from small independents to members of the big five publishing houses) have contacted us to be connected with our network of Inclusion Ambassadors. This is a network of young people with many different lived experiences who are willing to share their insight to help them in the process of creating authentically — and often incidentally — inclusive books. They are not sensitivity readers.
We encourage book creators (usually publishers and sometimes authors and illustrators) to ask to connect with the network at the earliest possible stage of a book’s development, so that Inclusion Ambassadors can share nuances related to their lived experience as characters are created and plots are developed. This makes it very different from sensitivity reading. Involving our Ambassadors is not about cutting potentially controversial content but rather about including and embedding authenticity and inclusive voices and experiences from the outset. These connections provide valuable insight that complements the many other forms of research an author will use to ensure authentic inclusion.
Occasionally publishers approach us to consult Inclusion Ambassadors when looking to reprint older titles. Whilst this is not the main focus for the Ambassadors (and we believe better authenticity is achieved through input at development stages), we do think those with lived experience can provide valuable input when it comes to reviewing language that can be damaging and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. In all our work with marginalised young people, the very real negative impact and damage caused to self-worth and mental health from biased, stereotypical and inauthentic representation is a recurring theme. On any project, it’s the role of the ambassador to help identify language and portrayals that could be inauthentic or problematic, and to highlight why, as well as indicate potential solutions. The publisher (and/or author) then have all the information to make informed decisions regarding what changes they wish to make to manuscripts and illustrations.
For clarity, Inclusive Minds do not edit or rewrite text, but provide valuable comments from people with relevant lived experience to help in the wider process.
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