In Liliana Corobca’s novel The Censor’s Notebook, we are introduced to a narrator in communist Romania who works as a censor. Sometimes she goes to events to spy on authors she considers “greedy, god-awfully depraved, drunkards, lechers, and stool pigeons.” She abhors their poetry as much as their prose and is very good at destroying texts but why spend a career among people you despise? Well, there is economics to consider. “Degenerates, creeps, sex addicts. But we can’t do without them….We live off them.” Which brings us to the heart of the matter in the recent furor over the rewriting of hundreds of passages in the classic children’s books by Roald Dahl: that we are excusing censorship in favour of a commercial imperative.
With the strike of a black marker, the sensitivity editors brought in by Puffin Books (Random House) have changed the description of Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, from ‘fat’ to ‘enormous’. The Oompa-Loompas are ‘small people’ instead of ‘small men’. A woman who once worked as a cashier in The Witches now works as a top scientist. If we’re bringing in hacks to alter the stories of Roald Dahl we might as well be hiring nutritionists to repaint the nudes of Lucian Freud. “It’s ludicrous,” says Matthew Forsythe, a Montreal-based author of several children’s novels, winner of the 2022 QWF's Janet Savage Blachford Prize for Children's & YA Literature, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. “They’re editing the meaning of a word, not just a word. What they’re implying is that there’s an empirical idea of ugly. Whereas I choose to interpret ugliness in terms of behavior.”
Initially the news sparked outrage and widespread condemnation which, after so many battles against censorship, is exactly what we should expect. Protection for freedom of expression comes in waves and is not guaranteed to last even a lifetime. In 1989 we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communist propaganda machines, and at the same time, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Art and literature cannot flourish in a climate of fear. Today, the stifling atmosphere surrounding writers’ work means censorship bleeds into self-censorship. The act of intercepting, scrutinizing, and cancelling art is draining creativity.
Yet beneath the loudest voices, a quiet, gathering acceptance of the practice is emerging. Perhaps we recognize that certain words are harmful and want to protect our children. If we don’t revise this phrase and expunge that one, aren’t we effectively perpetuating negative stereotypes that shape young minds and attitudes? Nobody wants to teach their children that people who look different than them are villains. Or that it's not okay to wear wigs. But might there be something adults are overlooking? “Kids are extremely emotionally intelligent,” says Forsythe. “They navigate the world more fluidly than we do. We’re the ones who are the robots.”
Roald Dahl in his Writing Hut, 1990 © Jan Baldwin
Roald Dahl, who died over thirty years ago, remains a beloved author whose wicked humour and tantalizing grotesquerie still leave the little ones spellbound. After a childhood spent in British boarding schools and a stint as a pilot in WW2, the characters that found their way to his page were not exactly the nurturing kind. His unlikely heroes were subjected to the taunts and whims of vengeful antagonists while their worlds were a thinly disguised caricature of the dark place Dahl knew it to be. In The BFG, his tale of giant Fleshlumpeaters and Bloodbottlers, the narrator seems to anticipate criticism of his creator when he offers the following defence: “Do not forget,” he says, “human beans is disappearing everywhere all the time even without the giants is guzzling them…Giants is not very lovely, but they is not killing each other.” Is that a message we should worry about? Or is it something kids intrinsically know.
Dahl’s ghost is walking around with a target on his back. A second defence for excusing censorship seems to be the reputation of the author. Difficult, spiteful, and anti-Sematic, Dahl’s name is undeniably maligned. He’s not someone you’d want to invite to tea. But we’re not talking about inviting an author to tea, we’re talking about censoring his body of work. Censorship cannot only be wrong in cases where we like the author. “What is this desire for morally perfect artists?” Forsythe asks. “Is it the role of art to be moral?” Hardly. If we want to find societal models for children, we’re better off looking somewhere else. Indeed, we’d be better off finding other ways to deal with this situation entirely.
Says Sarah Sahagian, Executive Director of The Canadian Children’s Book Centre, “Writers have the right to write what they want but not to have their books read. Whether or not we hand a book to a child is the decision of parents, teachers and librarians.” She advocates for gatekeepers and suggests introducing kids to more books “that reflect the norms of today and are sensitive to the values we want our children exposed to. For example: the Jean Little books, Kit Pearson, Rosena Fung, Eric Walters, Matthew Dawkins.” She prefers reading guides and content warnings to the rewriting of passages from Roald Dahl’s pages. “By editing them,” says Sahagian, “we give them power. This is the best publicity he’s had in years.”
Which brings us back to economics. Even before Netflix bought the Roald Dahl Story Company, annual income from the sale of his books and spin-offs was upwards of £26 million per year. According to Puffin’s website, the recent changes were undertaken so that “stories from another era can be kept relevant for each new generation.” It’s no crime for a publisher to want to sell books but let’s call a thing what it is. In the name of profit they have accepted a practice against which we have fought for centuries. Following the outcry, they reflected upon their actions and came up with a new solution: publish two sets of books, one altered one not, instead of just the one.
Ray Bradbury, the celebrated American author, once said, “There’s more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” In his novel, Fahrenheit 451, people rip out offending paragraphs, then pages, then more pages from books they don’t like until the spines are empty and the libraries closed and the imaginations shut down. Let’s not tell writers what they can and can’t write in a bid to protect the public. The noblest legacy of Roald Dahl is that he introduced countless children to literature. Our job is to keep them reading.