Scrolling through the many articles published around the recent debate concerning the “censorship” of Roald Dahl’s books, one particular title stood out. It referred to the language of the books as having been “sanitized,” implying that the language of the books was somehow inherently objectionable and needed to be cleaned up. Then, the question of who should do said “cleaning” started to circulate.
If you’ve been keeping up with the debate, you may have found yourself staunchly pro- or anti- “sanitation.” Or, like me, you may have simply watched from the sidelines as the debate raged and felt a quiet relief when Puffin UK announced its plans to print both the original works and the “updated” ones.
Either way, it’s worth taking a moment to look at why the debate mattered to so many people and how it could shift the way people view the responsibilities of a publisher.
What changes were made, and by whom?
The debate around the changes to Dahl’s text on its own is significant, but it’s also important to be conscious of who made the changes to the text and how far they actually went. It’s fair to say that the changes were mostly small. For example, in one case, “old hag” was replaced with “old crow.” The connotation (and level of offense) is similar and provoked some confusion as to why they even bothered changing the word. Another and perhaps more interesting change was the alteration of “attractive” to “kind,” a clear attempt at helping young readers focus more on the character’s personality than their looks. But publishers were quick to point out that that shouldn't be the job of a book. Many of the changes were similar in how far they went and how much of the meaning they altered.
As for who made the changes, a recent piece in The New York Times looked at just that. In that piece, Matthew Walther explains that “the changes were proposed by consultants at an organization called Inclusive Minds, which is purported to foster ‘inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature.' The edits were permitted by the Roald Dahl Story Company, which manages the author’s copyrights and trademarks, and which was later purchased by Netflix.”
Originally, then, it wasn’t the publisher pushing for the changes, but an outside organization, which was a detour from how changes have historically been made to texts (and they certainly have). The intervention of Inclusive Minds may be part of what rubbed people the wrong way, making it feel like the changes were made for the good of a group with a specific end goal in mind.
The role of a book
People around the world are aware of the power of literature to shape and grow minds both young and old. For young children, books are often one of the first ways they are exposed to new ideas and different cultures. That is what has helped feed the flames of the recent book bans in the US and the overall politicization of literature. This debate around Dahl’s texts was almost certainly primed to erupt by those ongoing conversations.
But part of the conversation that doesn’t seem to be taking place is around the actual purpose of a book, a more interesting question for publishing houses themselves. Is a book’s purpose to entertain? To teach? To expose? To build morality?
If we put too much pressure on books to do the job of raising decent humans, we, in turn, put unfair pressure on publishers to put the “right” kinds of books into the world.
The role of a publishing house
The role of a publishing house is not to police the morality of a given book, even when the books they are publishing are for children. It’s to publish a variety of books that offer options to parents and caregivers, allowing them to decide what is right for their child and their family. Asking publishers to make decisions around what is “right” and “wrong” is simply impossible. The books on a child’s shelf will reflect the values and perspectives of their parents or caregivers, but that doesn’t mean that a publisher must ensure that any and all books could end up on any and all shelves. It would be quite a dull literary scene if that were the case.
What gets published is informed by trends and discussions of what is appropriate and engaging for young readers. And what was appropriate and engaging thirty years ago may feel outdated now. However, publishers know that they shouldn’t underestimate children’s ability to put things into context. Many of Dahl’s stories take place in worlds that are decidedly different from the one in which we live, like many children’s books. Around the age of 5, children can distinguish between fantasy and reality. Therefore, it’s unlikely that a child would read about an older woman being referred to as an “old hag” in a fictional world and assume that it’s acceptable to use the same language in their own real world. The same debate occurred for years around the effect of video games that depicted violent behavior, with studies suggesting, at best, only a tenuous connection between video games and children’s behavior.
That doesn’t stop parents from worrying, especially as children begin forming strong opinions around the same age that they would be reading Roald Dahl books. But shaping opinions and beliefs is not the goal of a publisher. The goal is to put books into the world that offer a variety of experiences in order to reflect the world beyond the book. For that reason, many publishers decide against the kind of changes proposed by Inclusive Minds, even when the changes may make the books fit for a wider variety of bookshelves. Walther points out that, in the case of Dahl’s books, “it was a company treating Dahl’s beloved creations as if they were merely its assets, which they in fact were.” And yes, books are assets for a publisher, but they are also the creation of an individual author. That act of creation is respected by most publishers, which is why even small changes are discussed extensively with the author.
Dahl died in 1990, so we will never know what he thought about this "sanitizing" of his work. If the texts had gone unaltered, they may have ended up on fewer bookshelves, but they would have remained authentic to Dahl’s vision and historical experience. Perhaps the next time a publisher has to decide whether or not to change a text, we can remember that if a book falls out of favor due to changing times, publishers always have the option of letting them.