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  • Writer's picturePete Mesling

The Twits: Censoring Roald Dahl

Maybe you’ve read about it by now. Puffin, publisher of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, has taken to rewriting some of Dahl’s prose for its new editions. Gone are such offensive words as fat, ugly, female, and Cloud-Men, all so that a new generation of urchins can enjoy the stories (apparently they couldn’t before, though I’m not sure how the books have remained so stubbornly popular in that case).

I have to say, one of the joys of reading The Twits to my daughter when she was young was how she reveled in the frankness of Dahl’s descriptions. There’s something playfully wicked about how the Twits are made to live up to their ludicrous name. My daughter got that, and I’m guessing a good number of other children have gotten it over the years as well. Children, after all, are a lot brighter than we tend to give them credit for (at least my child was, ahem).

Writers are, too. And maybe it’s time we decide once and for all whether we want our writers to be arbiters of language and thinkers who inform public opinion, or merely background entertainers whose words can be chipped and chopped indiscriminately with little impact on the final effect, fodder for poorly scripted movies and series. I know where I stand.

But I’d offer a cautionary note. Rewriting books is rewriting history, the very thing censorship apologists ought to be against. As an analogy, look at how black history is—and isn’t—taught in our elementary schools. Surely the problem isn’t that we teach too much about racism, but that we don’t teach enough. If we remove everything ugly from our books of the past, we’re in danger of forgetting that the ugliness was there. It’s true of nonfiction and it’s true of fiction.

Don’t think this isn’t a first step toward more drastic revisions, by the way. The sensitivity-minded creeps start with children’s literature. It’s an easy target. No child is going to stand up and say, “Hey, wait a minute. Why are you fiddling with this author’s language? Isn’t that disrespectful and arrogant?” Instead, a generation will soften to the idea, and maybe when they’re adults it won’t seem like such a bad idea to alter passages from To Kill a Mockingbird or Giovanni’s Room. Or maybe we can consider ourselves lucky if anyone still cares about such works by then.

So let’s leave the questionable books alone, ’kay? If they get taught in schools, all the better. Teachers should have a role to play here. They can help children navigate difficult passages. At the end of the day, poor-quality fiction that makes its way into the hands of young people is far more offensive than anything Roald Dahl ever wrote, including his wonderful short stories for grown-ups. Quality is what we ought to be most concerned with.

Them’s my two cents, and here are a couple of Guardian articles about the debacle, in case you missed them:

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