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Roald Dahl's publisher responds to backlash by keeping 'classic' texts in print

Roald Dahl's U.K. publisher has responded to the backlash by keeping his language intact in a new collection.
Ronald Dumont
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Roald Dahl's U.K. publisher has responded to the backlash by keeping his language intact in a new collection.

Don't mess with Roald Dahl's language or his "swashboggling" fans. When his UK publisher announced it would be changing some of his words, the response was fierce. "An affront to democracy," wrote one reader responding to The Daily Telegraph's report on the proposed changes. "An exercise in priggish stupidity," read a headline in The Sydney Morning Herald. Even the Queen Consort and U.K. Prime Minister dismissed the idea of tampering with Dahl's original language.

For readers who don't want tweaked versions of Matilda, The BFG, The Twits and other delightfully wicked Dahl tales, Penguin Random House Children's in the UK has announced The Roald Dahl Classic Collection. It's described as 17 titles that "will sit alongside the newly released Puffin Roald Dahl books for young readers, which are designed for children who may be navigating written content independently for the first time."

"We've listened to the debate over the past week," writes Francesca Dow, Managing Director of Penguin Random House Children's in the U.K., "which has reaffirmed the extraordinary power of Roald Dahl's books and the very real questions around how stories from another era can be kept relevant for each new generation."

Censorship or sensitivity

According to The Daily Telegraph, there are hundreds of edits to the new Puffin editions of Dahl's books. Working with The Roald Dahl Story Company and the organization Inclusive Minds, the imprint said the changes were necessary because it had a "significant responsibility" to protect young readers. Still, Dahl's publishers in the U.S., France and Holland announced they would not be incorporating any of the changes made in U.K. editions.

This week's debate and the subsequent outcome is "heartening" for Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. "One thing that was striking about this debate over the last week is that there is a fair amount of unity, not total unity, but a fair amount of consensus that yeah, this is not the right answer to the prospect of being offended," Nossel tells NPR. "People would rather deal with the work in its original, have to contextualize it, have to explain to their kids, you know, maybe even feel a little bit affronted, then have someone come in and scrub away anything that people might object to."

Dahl's mischievous, even mean-spiritedness, is often seen as part of his books' appeal. Words such as "horsey face" and "idiots" could be considered the least of his offenses.

Roald Dahl "was no angel," as author Salman Rushdie put it, even as he blasted Dahl's publishers for censoring his books. Dahl, who died in 1990, made anti-Semitic statements. Some of his books have been called out for being racist.

"As a teacher, who has always loved Roald Dahl," wrote one observer on Twitter, "I have simultaneously loved yet struggled with elements of his writing. He conflates ugly and fat with mean! I have no problem with changes to the text!"

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.