Across his beloved children’s books, hundreds of the author’s words have been changed or entirely removed in a bid for ‘relevancy’
By Ed Cumming ; Genevieve Holl-Allen and Benedict Smith 17 February 2023 • 7:59pm
“Words matter,” begins the discreet notice, which sits at the bottom of the copyright page of Puffin’s latest editions of Roald Dahl’s books. “The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous 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.”
Put simply: these may not be the words Dahl wrote. The publishers have given themselves licence to edit the writer as they see fit, chopping, altering and adding where necessary to bring his books in line with contemporary sensibilities. By comparing the latest editions with earlier versions of the texts, The Telegraph has found hundreds of changes to Dahl’s stories.
Language related to weight, mental health, violence, gender and race has been cut and rewritten. Remember the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach? They are now the Cloud-People. The Small Foxes in Fantastic Mr Fox are now female. In Matilda, a mention of Rudyard Kipling has been cut and Jane Austen added. It’s Roald Dahl, but different.
Dahl, who died in 1990, is one of the most successful children’s authors of all time. Born in Cardiff in 1916 to Norwegian parents, he was an ace fighter pilot during the Second World War before turning his hand to writing. More than 250 million copies of his books, which include novels such as The Witches, The Twits and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as his memoirs Boy and Going Solo, have been sold worldwide. His stories are characterised by dark humour and unexpected twists.
This is not the first time that his work has been controversial. The Oompa-Loompas, the diminutive employees of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, have been extensively reimagined over the years. In recent years Dahl has been criticised for anti-Semitism, misogyny and racism.
The modern editor of Dahl faces a dilemma: how to retain Dahl’s compelling spikiness, which has enthralled generations of readers, while bringing it in line with the hair-trigger sensitivities of children’s publishing.
Puffin’s overhaul is the result. While there have been tweaks before, there has never been an alteration on this scale. Take The Witches, for example, Dahl’s memorably unpleasant 1983 novel about a young boy growing up in a world ruled by a coven of secretive witches. A 2001 version of the text includes the following passage, about yanking women’s hair to check if they are witches. (In the story, witches are bald, and wear gloves to disguise their claws.)
Unsurprisingly given The Witches’ subject matter, many of the edits are to do with depictions of women. “Chambermaid” becomes “cleaner”. “Great flock of ladies” becomes “great group of ladies”. “You must be mad, woman!” becomes “You must be out of your mind!” “The old hag” becomes “the old crow”.
“A witch is always a woman”, went the 2001 version of the book. “I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch.” That became, simply, “A witch is always a woman. There is no such thing as a male witch.”
These edits mute the original sense. Elsewhere, changes give a new meaning, like the below:
The Witches doing their bit for women in STEM.
Other alterations are about weight. “Fat little brown mouse” becomes “little brown mouse”. “‘Here’s your little boy,’ she said. ‘He needs to go on a diet’”, becomes “Here’s your little boy.”
In the earlier version, the narrator exclaims: “‘But what about the rest of the world?’ I cried. ‘What about ‘America and France and Holland and Germany? And what about Norway?’”. Now the sentence about America and France and Holland and Germany has been cut. The ‘rest of the world’ is evidently bigger now than it was.
This is only a sample of 59 changes found in The Witches, and it’s only one of Dahl’s books. Across the new editions, there are hundreds of edits, some bigger than others.
In Matilda, a passage where the heroine is learning about the escapist power of literature has changed:
Elsewhere, Miss Trunchbull’s “great horsey face” becomes simply her “face”. “Eight nutty little idiots” become “eight nutty little boys”.
Rather than “turning white,” a character turns “quite pale”, and in another example:
In James and the Giant Peach, the Cloud-Men have become Cloud-People, Miss Sponge is no longer “the fat one”, Miss Spider’s head is no longer “black” and the Earthworm no longer has “lovely pink” skin but “lovely smooth skin”. In The Twits, a “weird African language” is no longer weird, while Mrs Twit is no longer ugly and beastly but simply beastly. In the new version of George’s Marvellous Medicine, George’s exclamation changes to:
In Fantastic Mr Fox a description of tractors, saying that “the machines were both black”, has been cut. In the new Dahl world, it seems, neither machines nor animals can be described with a colour. Nor can anything be fat. “Bunce, the little pot-bellied dwarf”, is now plain old Bunce. The Small Foxes, previously sons, are now daughters, while Badger’s son has become a “little one”.
Even the harmless Esio Trot has not escaped. Tortoises no longer come “mostly from North Africa” but from “many different countries”. Perhaps more egregiously, given the story’s punning title: “Tortoises are very backward creatures. Therefore they can only understand words that are written backwards” has become simply: “They can only understand words that are written backwards”.
And so on. Hundreds of changes to some of the best-loved children’s books ever written. Even Quentin Blake’s illustrations do not make it through the sensitivity reading unscathed. Earlier editions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory include three sketches of Mike Teavee with 18 toy pistols “hanging from belts around his body”, but the guns have been scrubbed out by 2022, as well as a related sentence.
Explore the hundreds of changes made to Dahl’s stories
Language evolves. Few would defend retaining the “n-word” in contemporary publishing, or any number of other outdated racial slurs which bring the modern reader up short and do not add to the text. But where does sensible pruning give way to unnecessary tinkering?
“We want to ensure Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today,” said a spokesperson for the Roald Dahl Story Company. “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. Our guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text. Any changes made have been small and carefully considered.”
The rewriting of Dahl is part of a general trend for “sensitivity readings”, where books are screened before publication for material that might be upsetting. The practice began in children’s books, where it remains most pronounced. Anthony Horowitz, the bestselling author, recently talked about falling foul of the censor over a Native American character attacking someone with a scalpel.
“I made the changes, but I will confess they hurt,” Horowitz wrote in The Spectator. “It just feels wrong to be told what to write by an outside party, no matter how well-meaning.” Addressing the Hay Festival last year, Horowitz commented “children’s book publishers are more scared [of cancel culture] than anybody”.
Dahl has long been controversial. This is not the first time his books have changed to reflect contemporary mores, or around Hollywood interest. In the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), the Oompa-Loompas were black pygmies, enslaved by Willy Wonka from “the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle” and paid in cocoa beans. Dahl rewrote the characters in the late 1960s to “de-Negro” them, in his words. For Mel Stuart’s 1971 film starring Gene Wilder, the Oompas became green-haired, orange-skinned figures. By a 1973 edition of the book, they had become “little fantasy creatures”.
But in recent years Dahl has become an increasingly divisive figure – not only accused of racism and misogyny, but anti-Semitism too. The latter was so apparent in his writing and private life that in 2020, the Dahl family issued an apology.
“The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements. Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations. We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”
The Dahl estate owned the rights to the books until 2021, when Netflix bought them outright for a reported $686 million, building on an earlier rights deal. The American streaming service now has overall control over the book publishing, as well as various adaptation projects that are in the works. These are the first new editions since the deal, but the review began before the sale.
“The current review began in 2020, before Dahl was acquired by Netflix,” said a spokesperson for the Roald Dahl Story Company. “It was led by Puffin and Roald Dahl Story Company together.” (When approached for comment, Netflix directed The Telegraph back to Puffin.)
Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company made the latest changes in conjunction with Inclusive Minds, which its spokesperson describes as “a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature”. Organisations such as Inclusive Minds have sprung up to help publishers navigate these newly choppy waters.
Alexandra Strick, a co-founder of Inclusive Minds, says they “aim to ensure authentic representation, by working closely with the book world and with those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity”. To do this, they call on a team of “Inclusion Ambassadors” with a variety of “lived experience”. She says they mostly work with authors writing now, but are sometimes asked to work on older texts.
“Occasionally, publishers approach us to consult Inclusion Ambassadors when looking to reprint older titles,” says Strick. “While this is not the main focus for the Ambassadors – and we believe better authenticity is achieved through input at development stages – we do think those with lived experience can provide valuable input when it comes to reviewing language to help ensure that the stories can continue to be enjoyed by all children, so on occasions we work with publishers on classic texts.”
Some teachers argue it’s the children’s tastes that are changing. Scott Evans has been a primary school teacher for eight years and works at a school in South Wales, near Cardiff, where Dahl grew up. He runs a website, The Reader Teacher, and has worked as a sensitivity reader. “I understand the arguments some say about censorship and diminishing the author’s voice,” he says. “However, after recently re-reading some children’s books by Dahl, some language stood out as offensive while other terms have become outdated over time. Here, sensitivity readers can make suggested adaptations to make them more accessible to children.
“When you ask children and adults why they are drawn to Dahl’s books, it’s often the sense of rebellion within them that they mention,” he adds. “While maintaining this spirit in children’s books is essential and suppressing it entirely is not the answer either, it’s about making sure that the characters and content are mischievous, and not malicious, in their nature.”
The Oompa-Loompas may be the most famous example of Dahl’s earlier amendments, but they were not the only time he amended his writing. “It was clear towards the end of Dahl’s life, his editors worked really closely with him on shaping the stories,” says Kris Howard, founder of the Roald Dahl fan club roalddahlfans.com. “In some cases, they changed quite a lot. Fantastic Mr Fox is a great example: his first draft was more a glorification of thievery, one would argue, than the version that actually got published. I’m disappointed that [Dahl’s] books have been changed. But at the same time… Dahl did OK changes to his books in line with modern mores.
“Some of the descriptions [in the books] are a bit problematic with some of the characters,” she acknowledges. Nevertheless, “people have said that about characters in the Harry Potter novels”, and there is a way of contextualising Dahl’s work.
Matthew Dennison, who wrote a biography of the author, Teller of the Unexpected, published last year, says Dahl was particular about the language he used. “Dahl typically worked seven days a week for a year on one of his full-length novels and was drained by the experience, which involved extensive rewriting as he worked, followed by a lively back-and-forth with his editor,” he says.
“The process of editing often focused on individual words or particular expressions, as Dahl kept faith with some of the interwar slang of his childhood, and aspects of his vocabulary up to his death continued to recall the enthusiasms of English prep schoolboys. This was both natural to him and deliberate, and he resisted interference.
“His relationships with his editors included marked fractiousness on Dahl’s part,” he adds. “Overruling proposed word changes made by the American editor of The Witches, Stephen Roxburgh, Dahl wrote, ‘I don’t approve of some of your Americanisms. This is an English book with an English flavour and so it should remain.’”
When it came to children’s books, Dennison says Dahl didn’t care what adults thought as long as his target readers were happy. “‘I don’t give a b—-r what grown-ups think,’ was a characteristic statement,” Dennison says. “And I’m almost certain that he would have recognised that alterations to his novels prompted by the political climate were driven by adults rather than children, and this always inspired derision, if not contempt, in Dahl.
“He never, for example, had any truck with librarians who criticised his books as too frightening, lacking moral role models, negative in their portrayal of women, etc,” he continues. “Dahl wrote stories intended to kindle in children a lifelong love of reading and to remind them of the childhood wonderlands of magic and enchantment, aims in which he succeeded triumphantly. Adult anxieties about political niceties didn’t register in this outlook. This said, although Dahl could be unabashed in offending adults, he took pains never to alienate or make unhappy his child readers.”
Dahl is only a prominent example of a growing trend in children’s publishing for content that nobody can find offensive. The latest editing sets Roald Dahl the brand, the property for which Netflix paid handsomely and which generates millions of pounds in revenue for Penguin Random House, Puffin’s parent company, against the words Roald Dahl put on the page. A cynic might say it is a way of protecting the golden goose. Words matter, especially on the bottom line.
When does harmless tweaking become over-meddling? How long before The Twits becomes The Twits of Theseus, unrecognisable from its original form? Which other children’s authors are in line for the big green pencil? The way publishing is going, the rewriting of Roald Dahl may only be the beginni