Is it a matter of keeping classics relevant or political correctness gone mad? That’s the crux of the polarised reactions to news Roald Dahl’s publisher Puffin is changing language in some of his most iconic works. 

Works being reexamined with a contemporary lens have led to hundreds of changes to the English author’s books, including the Oompa Loompahs in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory being made gender-neutral instead of male, the words “fat” and “ugly” being culled, and more inclusive terminology being used throughout.

Writer and academic Denise Chapman says the changes to Roald Dahl’s books are censorship, plain and simple.Credit:Wayne Taylor

What to some seems like benign intervention to keep classic books relevant is damned by others as censorship and revisionism. Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie is incensed by the changes, describing the updated language as blatant censorship.

“Puffin Books and the Roald Dahl estate should be ashamed,” he tweeted.

Denise Chapman, lecturer in literacy at Monash University, agrees with Rushdie.

“We can’t erase it: we have to be able to know our history. This artwork is history,” she says.

As an African-American woman, Chapman says it’s a challenging topic, citing Huckleberry Finn as another example of a problematic text.

Where The Wild Things Are was also a touchpoint, Chapman says, as people were concerned the character of Max was disobeying his parents.

“We are always going to have books that upset people, that contain ideas that people don’t like or don’t agree with, that we all agree are absolutely wrong, but if we hide these books it doesn’t make it go away. In fact, it prevents us from preparing children to engage with this idea that we agree is wrong and that they will eventually face,” she says.

An illustration from ”Where The Wild Things Are”.Credit:Maurice Sendak

“Is this really about inclusivity? If so, then why aren’t we seeing more representation on [publishers] staff, of authors with lived experiences that would allow for a greater range of representation of thought and information.”

On the other hand, best-selling author Andy Griffiths argues that the changes do not affect the fundamental stories Dahl was telling, and that we should not cancel the author, rather congratulate him that his character and books continue to capture our imaginations. He sees the tweaks to the language as logical and indeed justified.

Some people deem The Very Hungry Caterpillar inappropriate because it depicts bad eating habits, but does that mean it should be banned?

Dani Solomon, manager of Readings Kids Shop in Carlton, is with Griffiths, saying the changes are minimal and help keep the books relevant, “while maintaining the irreverence and the spirit of silliness”.

“The thing that makes Roald Dahl’s books so great isn’t that people are referred to as fat or awful or horrible, it’s that they’re great. The stories are fun, the kids always win and none of that has changed, it’s just a few words here or there,” she says.

To her mind, updating language to meet current social expectations is different to altering the plot. According to Solomon, making changes to classics such as The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which dates back to 1911, or Huckleberry Finn would be a different issue.

“It’s easier to make little changes to things like fantasy or [things] that are not meant to be taken seriously, like in Enid Blyton there’s a magic tree or Roald Dahl, there’s bucketloads of wonderful insanity. Little changes don’t change that, whereas Huckleberry Finn is a snapshot of its time and it’s important to preserve those sorts of things. Maybe if it comes to it have a little disclaimer so parents can have those conversations with their kids.“

“Nothing is black and white, there’s not one rule for every single book. It’s more nuanced than some people on Twitter think it should be.”

Solomon makes the point that Dahl’s books invariably have an underlying lesson. “They are also deeply moral, not even subtly moral, they’re hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-brick moral and that hasn’t changed. If something was written today that was that obvious with a lesson moral, the editor might say tone it down a bit.”

Suzanne Nossal, CEO of PEN America said “literature is meant to be surprising and provocative. That’s part of its potency. By setting out to remove any reference that might cause offense you dilute the power of storytelling.”

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