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Roald Dahl or Roald Dull? Publisher scrubs ‘offensive’ language from classic children’s books

Puffin Books hired sensitivity readers to purge “problematic” language from Dahl’s children’s novels. Join us in petitioning Puffin’s CEO.
Pile of old Roald Dahl books on a white background

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UPDATED: On Feb. 24, Puffin Books released a statement announcing the publication of "The Roald Dahl Classic Collection," which will preserve Dahl's original texts. The collection will be published under the Penguin label and will grant readers everywhere the choice to read Dahl's work as he intended — without bowdlerization. We applaud Puffin Books and Penguin's willingness to change course, and we thank you all for joining us in speaking out.

Why go through the hassle of banning a book from a school library when you can just edit out all the content you find offensive? That seems to be the motto at Puffin Books after editors there purged novels by acclaimed children’s author Roald Dahl of language they found too “problematic” for modern audiences, a decision that critics have blasted.

For decades, Dahl’s literature has transported children to fantastical and macabre worlds. His stories — which include classics like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “Matilda” — often pin mischievous children against malevolent adults.

Editors at Puffin may not have bad intentions like the antagonists in Dahl’s books. Their stated rationale for revising Dahl’s novels is to update the text to include “all children.” But Puffin’s decision to purify Dahl’s books to conform to its values of diversity and inclusion is nothing short of censorship.

“If we start down the path of trying to correct for perceived slights instead of allowing readers to receive and react to books as written,” commented Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, “we risk distorting the work of great authors and clouding the essential lens that literature offers on society.”

Roald Dahl

VIDEO: Roald Dahl's classic books altered by publisher Puffin


We should teach children that you can learn something new about people who lived in the past each time you read an older book. Sanitizing books like Roald Dahl’s classics to meet “modern sensibilities” is not the answer.

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Comparing 2001 editions of Dahl’s books against the new Puffin versions, The Daily Telegraph cataloged hundreds of changes made by “sensitivity readers” to remove “problematic” language. Sensitivity readers, individuals who are hired or employed by publishing companies to flag and replace offensive content, are especially prevalent in children’s and young adult publishing houses. While the group hired by Puffin to edit Dahl’s books rejects the title “sensitivity reader,” its stated goal — “to review[ ] language that can be damaging and perpetuate harmful stereotypes . . . [and] to help identify language and portrayals that could be inauthentic or problematic” — suggests the label is apt.

Puffin’s sensitivity readers took special issue with Dahl’s references to weight and his depiction of gender. For instance, the notoriously overweight Augustus Gloop from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was originally described by Dahl in the following way: “Great flabby folds of fat bulged out from every part of his body, and his face was like a monstrous ball of dough.” In the Puffin edition, the watered-down description reads: “Great folds bulged out from every part of his body, and his face was like a ball of dough.” Gone are the alliteration and vivid adjectives that illustrate Gloop’s exaggerated dimensions for both shocking and comedic effect. 

A spokesperson from the Roald Dahl Story Company insisted that, in reviewing the books, their “guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text.” Yet, changing the description of Gloop’s physical appearance not only blunts Dahl’s colorful writing, it changes the reader’s perception of the character. For proof, look no further than this passage from the original, “But Augustus was deaf to everything except the call of his enormous stomach,” which Puffin’s sensitivity readers rephrased into plain, uninspiring prose: “But Augustus was ignoring everything.”

Moreover, the new editions rewrite gendered phrases like the “Cloud-Men” as “Cloud-People” in “James and the Giant Peach,” and “ladies and gentlemen” as “folks” in Dahl’s book “The Twits.”

Those who strive to impose the norms of today on the art of yesterday might contemplate this quote from novelist L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

During his lifetime, Dahl resisted efforts by editors to revise his carefully chosen words. According to his biographer, “Dahl wrote stories intended to kindle in children a lifelong love of reading . . . Adult anxieties about political niceties didn’t register in his outlook.” 

Still, Dahl “took pains never to alienate or make unhappy his child readers.” Dahl even assented to some revisions during his lifetime. Facing pressure for his original 1964 depiction of Oompa-Loompas, which were described as “a tribe of 3,000 amiable black pygmies” imported by Willy Wonka “for their own good,” Dahl recreated them as the orange-skinned, green-haired people we know today. But Dahl’s own decision to alter his depiction of Oompa-Loompas is hardly comparable to Puffin redacting his books posthumously.

Without a doubt, many cultural norms common in Dahl’s time have changed as society has progressed. But recognizing and appreciating that society has grown does not justify censoring the past. 

Those who strive to impose the norms of today on the art of yesterday might contemplate this quote from novelist L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Historic norms should be examined through discussion, not erased from books. Editors and parents should not shelter children from this potentially uncomfortable history. As FIRE’s CEO and President Greg Lukianoff wrote, grappling with rather than avoiding historical stereotypes “can lead to a deepening of your appreciation of the world and how even your historical norms will look quaint and strange to your children.”

Puffin’s bowdlerization of Roald Dahl’s work is little different from historic efforts to scrub the racial slurs from “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Dahl’s books are products of their time, and we should treat them as such.

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