Although many of his best-known books date from the 1960s, Roald Dahl is still today one of children's writers the most popular. There recent decision publisher Puffin, in conjunction with The Roald Dahl Story Company, to make several hundred revisions to new editions of his novels has drawn much criticism, the writer Salman Rushdie going so far as to speak of censorship.
Among the changes recommended by modern-day "sensitivity readers" are the removal or substitution of words describing the appearance of characters and the addition of gender-neutral vocabulary in certain passages. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, Augustus Gloop is no longer "big" but "enormous". Ms. Twit of Two scoundrels became "horrible" rather than "ugly and horrible". In Matilda, the protagonist no longer reads the works of Rudyard Kipling but those of… Jane Austen.
If some have used the term "cancel culture" on this subject, these editorial choices are in fact part of a tradition where books intended for children and adolescents are retouched over time to correspond to what adults believe they should read.
Should we place the children's literature on an equal footing with adult literature, and also categorically condemn the alteration of texts? Or do we accept that children's fiction is treated differently insofar as it would play the role of gateway to the world around us?
Classics rewritten for children
Published in 1807, The Family Shakespeare by Thomas Bowdler, a collection of 20 of Shakespeare's plays, omitted “words and expressions […] which cannot properly be read aloud in the home setting”, especially in front of women and children.
Since then, the term bowdlerization refers across the Channel to the process of modifying literary works for moral reasons (watered down editions of Shakespeare continued to be used in schools throughout the XNUMXthe century).
While Shakespeare's works were not aimed specifically at children, Enid Blyton's fictions are a more recent example of the watering down of works considered classics of children's literature. Over the past forty years, his books have been altered several times, whose series The Club of Five et The Faraway Tree.
Although many consider the novelist's works to be hoarding cliches and totally uninteresting from a literary point of view, attempts to modernize the names and remove references to corporal punishment, for example, have annoyed those nostalgic for these stories. who wanted to introduce them to their children and grandchildren.
A literature that influences the youngest
Children's literature implicitly shapes children's minds by normalizing certain social and cultural values, presented as natural, a process that children's literature researchers call "socialization".
Although some of his works may be considered obscene or morally repugnant, adult literature is not considered to directly influence our way of thinking in the same way that books for younger children can.
While many are scandalized by the manifest censorship of Roald Dahl's novels, the one that insidiously weighs on the publication of all children's books is played out at several levels.
Children's authors know that certain terms and content are incompatible with the publication of their book. Publishers are aware that controversial topics, such as sex and gender identity, can lead to certain titles being excluded from libraries and school curricula, or boycotts. Librarians and teachers may refuse to choose certain books because of the risk of complaints or their own political beliefs.
Several of Roald Dahl's books have already been the subject of attempts to rewrite or prohibitionIncluding Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), partially rewritten by the author in 1973 under the pressure from the American Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and children's literature professionals.
In the original text, the Oompa Loompas were "a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies" whom Willy Wonka, the owner of the chocolate factory, "discovered" and "brought back from Africa" to work in his factory, their only remuneration being cocoa beans, which they were fond of.
Although Roald Dahl denied having portrayed blacks negatively, he agreed to rewrite the passages in question. The Oompa Loompas now originate from Loompaland; they have "golden brown hair" and "white-pink skin".
Solicit the critical eye of children
In Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (Was the cat in the hat black? The hidden racism of children's books and the need for a more mixed literature), Philip Nel, a specialist in children's literature, believes that we have three reactions to children's books that contain terms and ideas deemed inadmissible today.
The first is to consider these books as "cultural artifacts", which have historical significance, but which children should not read. This option acts as an insidious censorship, since adults have the power to choose the books that children are allowed to read.
The second is to offer children only watered-down versions of these books, such as the ones that Roald Dahl's editor has published recently. This undermines the principle that literary works are cultural objects, which should not be altered. Moreover, the substitution of certain words does not generally modify the way we look at the values (today qualified as obsolete) conveyed by the text, but makes their identification and their questioning more difficult.
The third is to let children read any version of a book, whether original or watered down. In making this choice, we recognize that even young readers are capable of critically looking at a book's message.
This option also allows discussing topics such as racism and sexism with parents and educators, which is easier if the original text has not been edited. Although Phil Nel favors this approach, he recognizes that refusing to modify the texts may still confuse certain groups of readers (for example, black children who would read an edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn of Mark Twain where the word would still appear "Negro".)
Matilda by Roald Dahl talks about the power of books to enrich and transform our lives, while recognizing the critical intelligence of children.
Although many aspects of the fictional past do not correspond to the idealized version of the world that we would like to present to children, as adults we can help them understand this past, rather than trying to rewrite it.
Translated from English by Fast ForWord.