Puffin Books Bowdlerizes Roald Dahl

The despicable, dystopian story behind a publisher’s use of “Inclusion Ambassadors” to transform beloved children’s novels

The Roald Dahl censorship furor has set the internet on fire, and Salman Rushdie, the head of PEN America, and the British prime minister, along with dozens of other public figures, writers, and commentators, have weighed in with strongly worded statements and tweets. Here is a case that redefines censorship and the selective editing of the past in ways that may leave you wondering about the fate of all literature.

The spark that lit this conflagration is the Telegraph’s reporting of a decision by Puffin, the U.K. children’s imprint of Penguin Books, to alter and add language in a number of Dahl’s children’s books to bring them in line with current sensibilities. There must be nothing in the books that offends anyone or gives kids the wrong ideas.

Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company reportedly made these changes in consultation with an outfit called Inclusive Minds, whose co-founder, Alexandra Strick, is quoted in the Telegraph describing how the organization enlists “Inclusion Ambassadors” to review materials in order “to ensure authentic representation.”

We can’t go on together, with Inclusive Minds.

These Inclusion Ambassadors mean business, and they really went to work on Roald Dahl. The revisers have not merely dropped a word here or there, but, as the Telegraph’s comparison of the new and old texts reveals, have gone so far as to add phrases, clauses, and whole sentences to the texts—lines that Dahl would never in a million years have written—and swap out one cultural or historical reference for another.

In other words, the Inclusion Ambassadors have upped the censorship game and have put words in the mouth of a famous author. They have made a writer who died in 1990 a spokesman—uh, spokesperson—for certain ideologies and protocols of the moment.

Words Are Violence

The Telegraph’s February 17 report quotes a notice inserted on the copyright page of the new Dahl editions: “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 to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”

The changes go further than you might think possible. According to the Telegraph’s journalists, “Language related to weight, mental health, violence, gender and race has been cut and re-written. Remember the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach? They are now the Cloud-People. The Small Foxes in Mr. Fantastic Fox are now female. A mention of Rudyard Kipling has been cut and Jane Austen added. It’s Roald Dahl, but different.”

It is no snub of the Telegraph’s excellent reporting to say that that last bit is incorrect. If you alter or replace cultural references in a story—Austen for Kipling, female for male—you change the content of a work on the most fundamental level. Kipling has cultural associations, good or bad. A reference to him within a narrative serves one purpose, a different reference, another one entirely.

Characterizations and personifications of animals, including allusions to their gender, bring them to life as characters according to a writer’s highly specific schemata. Alter these things, introduce a new sensibility, and what you have is not Roald Dahl at all.

The “enormous” Augustus Gloop.

The alterations to the new Dahl books defy belief. Dahl can’t even get away with a reference to a fat character. Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now “enormous.” The Oompa-Loompas in that book are no longer “small men,” but “small people.” Gone, also, is a reference to Mrs. Twit in The Twits as being ugly.

The Telegraph’s other examples have to be seen to be believed. In Dahl’s The Witches, the line “Even if she is working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman” becomes “Even if she is working as a top scientist or running a business.”

Another passage from the original text of The Witches reads: “‘Don’t be foolish,’ my grandmother said. ‘You can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just try it and see what happens.’”

Puffin’s bowdlerized 2023 text: “‘Don’t be foolish,’ my grandmother said. ‘Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.’”

What, exactly happened to Kipling in the above-mentioned passage? Here is the original, again from Matilda: “She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.”

Puffin’s revision: “She went to nineteenth-century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and California with John Steinbeck.”

You will note that Puffin’s censors have taken it upon themselves to change not just the references within a text but the very plot of the story. They have altered a character’s itinerary. Instead of going to India with a dated imperialist author, she travels to California with a writer, Steinbeck, known for his labor and socialist sympathies and his aversion to exploiters and robber barons.

Why stop there? If you’re going to take liberties of that order with Dahl’s characters, plots, situations, and themes, then you might as well have his protagonists go to Harlem with Malcolm X, travel to Africa with Frantz Fanon, and hit up a Hillary Clinton rally with Gloria Steinem.

For the record, expunging a reference to Joseph Conrad on the grounds of current sensitivities shows a peculiar lack of awareness of anti-colonial and pro-indigenous themes in stories such as “An Outpost of Progress.”

Puffin’s actions may leave you wondering about the fate of other works commonly read to children, such as Gulliver’s Travels. Maybe the part where Gulliver describes the tiny Lilliputians as “creatures” will be revised to expunge such a disparaging reference, and will include an interpolation: “Discrimination based on height is wrong and illegal, as Gulliver should have known.” And perhaps the passage where he mentions servants carrying off his ordure in buckets will need a bit of text inserted: “Looking down upon menial labor is a sign of blatant class privilege and, in the case of Gulliver, white male privilege.”

Not Buying It

To his undying credit, Salman Rushdie, who survived an attack on his life in western New York last August, carried out by a reputed jihadist seeking to fulfill the fatwa declared against the author over the 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, and who had to go into hiding to escape bloodthirsty censors, will have none of this.

Retweeting a comment from PEN America head Suzanne Nossel saying that her organization is “alarmed” at the many changes to Dahl’s books, Rushdie weighed in, in no uncertain terms. “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

One of the most trenchant criticisms of the steps taken by the Inclusion Ambassadors comes from Britain’s first nonwhite prime minister, Rishi Sunak. The PM took offense at the revisions, issuing a statement making reference to one of Dahl’s most famous fictional creations: “When it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the prime minister agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words.”

Even the left-wing Guardian expressed concerns with a sober report on the controversy.

Other commentators, such as author Ashley Esqueda, have derided the concern over the changes. Esqueda wrote in a tweet, “Good god already seeing the insipid performative outrage at the Roald Dahl estate approving changes to his books, his estate approved this, nobody forced them. It’s good to evolve with the times. It’s fine. Very tired of people demanding we remain locked into their childhoods.”

Thanks, Ashley. Upper-casing “God?” How very regressive indeed.

Author Philip Pullman came out with a different suggestion, calling for publishers to allow Dahl’s politically incorrect works go out of print rather than bothering with all the time, trouble, and controversy that reworking them involves.

We could have editorialized extensively about this latest example of censorship and the selective editing and rewriting of the past, but maybe it is better to let Puffin’s actions speak for themselves and allow readers to make up their own minds about what “evolving for the times” might mean for all the books in history not authored by Inclusion Ambassadors.

It may be wise also to consider the question of where children may end up if everything they read and everything read to them is a perpetual soft landing, preparing them not for the world as it is, but for the world that Inclusion Ambassadors seek to bring into existence.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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