Should the Roald Dahl Books Be Rewritten?

a stack of roald dahl books

Roald Dahl was a British author of 19 children’s books we now know as classics. His first book “The Gremlins” was published in 1943 in the U.S. by Random House, but what largely established him as a writer was “James and the Giant Peach” in 1961. From there, he wrote books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (1964), “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (1970), “The BFG” (1982), “The Witches” (1983) and “Matilda” (1988). His books often had a dark nature compared to other children’s books at the time. They included violent details, with adults being portrayed as villains and children as mature, intelligent and noble. This was controversial amongst parents and critics, but Dahl claimed that he was trying to appeal to his young readers with crude humor. 

After his death in 1990, The Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC) managed the copyrights for his books and the publishing of his books amongst other marketing. In 2013, Penguin Random House was created as a conglomerate with more than 300 independent imprints and brands, including Random House, Penguin Publishing Group and Puffin Books. Puffin Books, the children’s book imprint of Penguin Random House, is now the publisher of Dahl’s books and recently worked with the RDSC to rewrite and republish his books. 

RDSC was motivated to make changes to the books to make them more diverse and inclusive. To do this, they partnered with Inclusive Minds. Inclusive Minds, an organization working to make children’s books accessible and diverse, told TIME they “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.” The rewrites were also motivated by past controversy surrounding Dahl’s history of anti-Semitic comments, racist tropes and language, and misogyny in his books. 

Some examples of edits made involved describing physical appearances of the characters in the books. Augustus Gloop in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was changed to be described as “enormous” instead of “enormously fat.” Mrs. Twit in “The Twits” is now “beastly” instead of “ugly and beastly.” In an edition of “James and the Giant Peach,” the character, Centipede, describes James’ aunts by singing “Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat / And tremendously flabby at that” and “Aunt Spiker was thin as a wire / And dry as a bone, only drier.” This was removed and replaced with “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute / And deserved to be squashed by the fruit” and “Aunt Spiker was much of the same / And deserves half of the blame.” Other changes include referencing Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda” as a “most formidable woman” instead of a “most formidable female” and using gender neutral terms like “small people” instead of “small men” for describing the Oompa Loompas in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or for describing “Cloud-People” instead of “Cloud-Men” in “James and the Giant Peach.” These edits amongst others removed text related to weight, mental health, gender and race. 

This stirred controversy amongst authors and people alike who called the decision “censorship.” One of the authors was Salman Rushdie, an author who was forced into hiding due to persecution from the former supreme leader of Iran after releasing his book “The Satanic Verses,” which the supreme leader found blasphemous. Rushdie tweeted, “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.” 

When asked about other books where publishers have changed language like this, Nicole Longpré, the acting associate dean of the library at Bellevue College, said, “[T]he idea of changing books because of language that is no longer deemed appropriate has been happening since publishing began.” She further explained that many think the best ways to sell a book is to make it current with the time, but when changing the language, they forget that “a book, at the time it is written, is a piece of evidence in the time in which it came.”

An example she provided was how the language in Mark Twain’s books is no longer acceptable, but they were when he wrote them. By changing the words, you lose the context of their usage at the time. She says, “Any discussion of Twain’s books should include what was happening in the world at the time, and the larger manifestations of those situations.”

In relation to Dahl’s books, Longpré thinks that they should not have been changed, and she doesn’t think readership will change. She points out the large significance of Dahl in children’s literature in the United Kingdom and how it is different than just the familiarity of his books in the U.S. So, books will still continue to be bought and sold, but “new readers won’t recognize the differences unless they are pointed out,” and “those who have already read his books likely won’t rush out to see what changes have been made.”
On Feb. 24, six days after Rushdie’s tweet, Penguin Random House announced that they would continue to publish “The Roald Dahl Classic Collection” alongside the newly released version by Puffin. This collection will include the original works of Dahl after the backlash that revising them caused.