Iconic children’s author’s work censored


Sonali Rao

Justine Pascutti believes that censorship is not the answer. Although Roald Dahl is a controversial figure, Pascutti does not support rewrites. She is alarmed by the distortion of the author’s work.

Justine Pascutti, Ad & Distribution Manager

According to a representative from the author’s estate, new editions of the legendary works of best-selling British author Roald Dahl, whose children’s classics include “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” and “James and the Giant Peach,” have been rewritten in an attempt to render them as less offensive and more inclusive. Though some of Dahl’s works may contain material that is outdated and even troubling, I don’t believe that censorship is the best way to handle books that you don’t agree with or describe difficult topics. 

Dahl died in 1990, at age 76. An evaluation of his works began in 2020, before Netflix acquired the Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the author’s copyrights and trademarks. The estate had worked with Inclusive Minds, a group that promotes accessibility and diversity in children’s books. While noting that the group did not “write, edit or rewrite texts,” Inclusive Minds said they “provide valuable input when it comes to reviewing language that can be damaging and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.” 

Puffin Books and the Dahl estate made changes to the original texts that touched on weight, mental health, gender, race and ethnicity. The Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported that at least 10 of Dahl’s 19 children’s books had hundreds of words modified or erased, including descriptions of characters’ appearances, races, and genders. Additionally, language relating to weight, mental health and violence had been removed or changed. As part of this, descriptions that used the colors black and white as well as adjectives such as “fat” and “ugly” were eliminated. References to skin color and gender were also modified – for example, “lovely pink skin” was changed to “lovely smooth skin” in “James and the Giant Peach, and “mothers” and “fathers” were changed to “family” throughout many of his books. In all, hundreds of edits were made to the original works. The Roald Dahl Story Company said in a statement that it worked with Puffin Books to ensure the “wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.”

The news that these changes have been made has sparked widespread criticism and outrage from many novelists, such as Salman Rushdie, the prizewinning author of “Midnight’s Children” and “The Satanic Verses”. Rushdie described the revisions as “absurd censorship.” This public backlash has resulted in the publisher announcing that it will continue to publish the original texts alongside new edited versions.

Matthew Dennison, who wrote a biography of Dahl, said that the author had a history of having problematic relationships with his editors and despised anyone who tampered with his work. Dennison remarked that Dahl always “resisted unnecessary sanitizing” and Dahl recognized that changes made to his books were a result of the political atmosphere that represented adult sensibilities rather than children’s concerns. In fact, Dahl once said, “I never get any protests from children. All you get are giggles of mirth and squirms of delight. I know what children like.” 

Sophomore Emerson Ritter agrees. “Personally, I don’t believe that any book should be censored regardless of topic or who wrote it or what it contains. I think that people have a right to any knowledge that they want access to. I think that’s especially true for young people that are kind of figuring out their way in the world…and I think books can be really powerful for that. I don’t think Dahl’s work or any other work should be taken out of schools or censored.” 

The censorship of books within school districts is a timely issue. Recently in my English class we discussed Viet Thangh Nguyen’s New York Times article, My Young Mind Was Disturbed by a Book. It Changed My Life. In the article, Nguyen argues that if schools ban books, children will be deprived of learning important values and historical events. Another thing he argues is that the reason books get banned is because of the parents, not children. It’s the parents who have an issue with the content of the books, and don’t want their children reading about it. I found this really interesting, and something that I never thought about, but agree with completely. “And perhaps that’s the real reason some people want to ban books that raise complicated issues: They implicate and discomfort the adults, not the children. By banning books, we also ban difficult dialogues and disagreements, which children are perfectly capable of having and which are crucial to a democracy…Perhaps we will eventually have less war, less racism, less exploitation if our children can learn how to talk about these things,” Nguyen said.  

By banning books, we are just avoiding topics that need to be talked about. This got me thinking, why do some books get banned while others don’t? How do people categorize a “good” book that kids can read, vs. a “bad book” that kids cannot read? What content in books is considered bad? I believe that no books should be categorized as “bad.” Roald Dahl was indeed a controversial person, and many of the things he said and wrote troubles and offends me. Yet I don’t think censorship is the answer.  I agree with author Philip Pullman who told BBC Radio 4 that Dahl’s books “should be allowed to fade away” and not be rewritten if judged by modern society to be offensive.