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Intense Backlash Causes Roald Dahl Book Publisher to Reverse Decision On ‘Sensitive Reader’ Edits

Samantha Franco
Photo Credit: Ronald Dumont / Daily Express / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Ronald Dumont / Daily Express / Getty Images

Roald Dahl was a British novelist whose children’s books became classics all over the world. However, Dahl was a controversial figure when he was alive, and his works were often called antisocial and anti-feminist. Despite the controversy, several of his books were adapted into films for even wider-spread consumption. Recently, his estate worked with his book publisher to edit words and phrases that could be considered inappropriate. The changes stirred an immediate backlash from others in the industry, who described the venture as unnecessary censorship. The uproar caused the publishers to offer a “classic collection” of unchanged prints.

Puffin worked with ‘sensitivity readers’

Roald Dahl books sat in a display book shelf.
Several Roald Dahl books sit on display in a classroom. (Photo Credit: Classroom Camera (Cascade Canyon School) / Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The Roald Dahl Story Company manages the author’s copyrights and trademarks, and said that they were altering the books to ensure that “Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.” The bottom of their copyright page reads, “Words matter. The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvelous characters. This book was written many years ago and so we regularly review the language…”

The company partnered with Inclusive Minds, an organization focused on diversity and accessibility in children’s literature. Inclusive Minds said although they did not “write, edit or rewrite texts,” they did help “provide valuable input when it comes to reviewing language that can be damaging and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.” Their aim was to make the books less offensive and more inclusive.

Rick Behari, a Roald Dahl Story Company spokesperson, explained, “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.” However, the changes appeared to be bigger than little adjustments here and there.

Hundreds of changes were made – some small, some big

The front cover of the Roald Dahl book, "The Witches"
The Witches is one of Dahl’s novels to undergo changes. (Photo Credit: School Library / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Of Dahl’s 19 children’s books, words or phrases were removed, changed, or inserted in at least 10 of them. Some of the titles include Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryMatilda, and James and the Giant Peach. The changes were made to descriptions of characters’ races, genders, and appearances. Words like “fat” and “ugly” were no longer used, and references to “mothers” and “fathers” had been changed to “parents” or “family.”

In Dahl’s 1983 book The Witches alone, journalists found 59 changes from the original text. These were not just one-word changes, either. The original phrasing of the book described how the witches were bald underneath their wigs. In the edited editions, this sentence has been added: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

Award-winning novelists and others openly criticized the changes

Roald Dahl sitting at a table signing books brought to him by several children surrounding the table.
Author Roald Dahl autographing books in 1988. (Photo Credit: Independent News and Media / Getty Images).

The changes sparked a slew of backlash from several award-winning novelists and other public figures. Criticizing the new changes, Philip Pullman, the author of His Dark Materials, said, “There are millions, probably, of his books in secondhand editions in school libraries and classrooms. What are you going to do about them? All those words are still there. You going to round up all the books and cross them out with a big black pen?”

Prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie, who authored Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, called the changes “absurd censorship” and said, “Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America, an organization that supports and protects freedom of expression, tweeted that the group was “alarmed” by the changes to Dahl’s work and explained, “Those who might cheer specific edits to Dahl’s work should consider how the power to rewrite books might be used in the hands of those who do not share their values and sensibilities.”

Puffin is offering a ‘Classic Collection’ as a result of the backlash

The side view of a child reading a Roald Dahl book
A child reads a Roald Dahl book at Roath Park Primary School on February 23, 2021 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo Credit: Matthew Horwood / Getty Images)

After seeing and listening to the backlash caused by the edits, the publishers have decided to offer both editions, classic and edited, “to keep the author’s classic text in print” and allow readers to decide for themselves how they wish to read these books.

“By making both Puffin and Penguin versions available, we are offering readers the choice to decide how they experience Roald Dahl’s magical, marvellous stories,” said managing director of Penguin Random House Children’s, Francesca Dow. “The last few days have demonstrated just how important Roald Dahl’s stories are to fans all around the world and we’ve been deeply moved by the strength of feeling.”

“The most important thing to us is that the stories continue to be enjoyed by all,” she stated.

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Roald Dahl died in 1990 at the age of 74. While he was alive, he caused controversy and his vocabulary was criticized. However, Dahl himself claimed, “I never get any protests from children. All you get are giggles of mirth and squirms of delight. I know what children like.”

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!