Roald Dahl vs the Sensitivity Readers

Enid Blyton’s books have been being updated for decades now, and while there is often complaints amongst the fans it is generally a muttering on forums and in Facebook groups. After all, it has been happening for years and it’s no longer big news. However, the changes to Roald Dahl’s books have absolutely taken the world by storm.

Acclaimed authors, the Prime Minister and even Queen Camilla are weighing in with their opinions, and now it’s time for me to do the same.

What’s happened?

Just in case anyone’s managed to miss all the media coverage – Sensitivity Readers (I had no idea that was their title) have made edits to several of Dahl’s most famous and popular books on behalf of Puffin the publishers and Netflix the copyright holders.

The Twits, The Witches, Matilda, George’s Marvellous Medicine, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox, The BFG, The Enormous Crocodile and Esio Trot have all been named as updated but it’s not clear if any others have been changed, or if the other titles simply haven’t been reprinted yet.

In a similar vein to updates to Blyton’s books while the stories remain largely the same, the language has been changed to avoid any potential offense and to modernise some out-dated opinions.

The uproar

As usual as soon as anyone mentions new updates or modernisations people got pretty mad. There have been plenty of reasonably complaints and criticisms but sadly also a lot of people screaming censorship, slippery slope, snowflake, wokey cokey and so on.

Now – I don’t actually agree with the vast majority of the changes, and I’ll get on to some specifics shortly. But I have to say that as always, some of the more vociferous complaints makes nasty reading. Vehemently anti-woke people are out in force demanding their rights to say anything they want and calling everyone else snowflakes.

To be honest nobody comes out of this all looking good. In my opinion the sensitivity readers have gone too far and make a lot of unnecessary and downright odd changes, which unfortunately make those that are more left-leaning look overly easily offended. Meanwhile many who are towards the right (to overly simply matters) are making themselves appear rather racist.

Why I (mostly) disagree

As I said above, I disagree with the majority of the changes that I have seen – but not all, and not for necessarily the same reasons as those hammering their keyboards with the caps locks on.

I’ve been a big Dahl fan since a child. His books have been on my shelves for thirty years now, some bought new, others purchased for pennies from the library sales trolley. They were read to me by my parents, my teachers and then I read them by myself. I’ve now read them all to Brodie and he has been just as entranced as I always have been.

Reading them to Brodie has been a different experience, of course. Reading them aloud and reading them to a five year old means my brain is working differently and I did have a couple of issues with the writing – but the vast majority of it I read exactly as written.

One thing I changed is Dahl’s frequent use of ‘female’. To most people that’s interchangeable with woman, and that’s probably all that Dahl ever intended it to be. However female isn’t a great way to describe women and has increasingly been adopted as a deliberate derogatory way to refer to women, particularly by the self-declared incel community.  As an adjective female is usually fine, as is male – we use male or female to highlight when that gender is less common in a role for example male nurse or male midwife, or when important in identifying someone – a male or female suspect. But it’s unlikely someone would say  something like the males in the office wear suits yet you do see people using females in that manner.

So with that in mind am I upset that this is a change that has been made to Dahl’s books? No, I’m not. But equally I wouldn’t go campaigning for this change or boycotting his books over it as they were written in a different time.

The other issue is a few pages in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. The US President is trying to reach the premier of China on the phone, but gets various other Chinese homes and businesses first. The joke being about ‘winging the wong number’ as there are so many people with the names Wing and Wong. Is this horribly offensive? Probably not but combined with what else is on these pages it adds up to make a very uncomfortable read – and led me to hurriedly trying to make up my own wording as I read it to Brodie.

Firstly, there’s the stereotypical broken and mispronounced English spoken by the characters. The ten o’clock tlain no lunning today. People from various Asian counties can have difficulties differentiating between L and R depending on the sound they make and their position in words, but was it really necessary to highlight that by the spelling of the words? If we did that every time a character had an accent vast portions of their dialogue would have alternative spelling. An author makes a choice to include spellings that highlight accent and dialect – for flavour, authenticity, and generally it is very carefully done. The only reason for it here seems to be for poking fun at the Chinese. The assistant-premier calls himself the assistant-plemier and his name is Chu-On-Dat, while the premier is How-Yu-Bin. Again, names chosen to poke fun.

Comedy is subjective, and can often be quite mean. Someone, something or someplace has to be the butt of the joke, and as adults we can choose to engage with or ignore humour depending on whether we find it funny or not. However I think the line has to be drawn a lot more quickly when it comes to any content that’s made for children. I don’t think children should be reading jokes that deliberately make fun of things that people can’t change – particularly when it comes to race, gender and so on.

I think it’s relevant as well that in this book these jokes are not all made by characters, where you could argue then don’t reflect the author’s opinions but instead are in the narrative as well. So it’s strange that this hasn’t been a topic of conversation – has this (admittedly vastly inferior) sequel just been quietly dropped?

So far this section hasn’t done a very good job of showing why I disagree with most of the changes so let’s get on to that.

First up – a lot of them just make no sense at all.

Whilst I am used to Black people no longer being black in Enid Blyton books, I am baffled by the farmers’ black tractors (Fantastic Mr Fox) and the BFG’s black cloak losing their colours. Neither are symbolically linked to people of colour, or suggest that black objects have negative connotations in comparison to white objects, so this seems as if they ran a ‘search and delete’ function without looking at the context.

Various references to fatness have been removed (much like for Fatty in the FFO) but many of these characters are still described as enormous. To be honest I’d rather be called fat than enormous! By leaving enormous we are still commenting (negatively) on their size so removing ‘fat’ seems rather redundant.

Hag is changed to crow, and cow has been changed to shrew. As insults go they are all pretty much on a par with each other, surely?

Frumptious freaks – a wonderfully alliterative made-up phrase has been replaced with beastly Twits, words which have been used various other times across the book and thus add nothing new.

Attempts have been made to modernise attitudes towards women, the sort of thing I normally champion but they seem silly here. A witch is no longer likely to be working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman she is instead working as a top scientist or running a business. In a book written today I’d probably have issues with the limiting job suggestions for women – but these were pretty average for the early 1980s. And besides, there is nothing wrong with being a cashier or a secretary. Likewise the chambermaid becoming the cleaner.

Some characters (like Mr Fox’s children) become girls instead of boys – again in modern books I’d expect to see a mix of genders unless important for plot reasons, but the Fox family having unnamed boy foxes is hardly offensive.

Random changes that serve no purpose include changing adorable to lovely (when describing a dress) – racking my brains I can only think that adorable could be construed as infantilising the woman wearing the dress, but that’s an reach of epic proportions.

A flock of ladies becomes a group – now I’m not a fan of calling women birds, but it’s an enormous reach to suggest we can’t use flock.

And on and on it goes. Some of them I can see a reason behind, even if I don’t agree with it. Yes, some of the descriptions are unkind but Dahl’s books are, as various articles have described them, spiky. They are dark, they are disgusting, and children delight in all that.

You can see a full list of changes here (if you’re not a subscriber you could try Googling ‘twelve foot ladder’ and then it’s up to you what you do with that).

Dahl wasn’t averse to changing his own books – he changed the Oompa Loompas from African Pygmies to characters from a made-up land – and I’d like to think he wouldn’t mind the odd change to the most offensive parts of his writing now.

However, I’m pretty sure he would not approve of hundreds of meaningless changes being made to his books – especially when the changes lose any shred of originality. The new phrases no longer have Dahl’s style or sense of linguistic fun and they also ignore the fact that these books were written up to seventy years ago when attitudes were different.

So to cut a long story short, I think that the odd update is usually fine but changing a ton of phrases in an illogical manner is definitely not. The exact same as I feel about updates to Blyton’s books, then!




This entry was posted in Other Authors, Updating Blyton's Books and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Roald Dahl vs the Sensitivity Readers

  1. Suzy Howlett says:

    This sounds very well-thought-out and sensible to me, Fiona, and I like your thinking! Did you know that when Roald Dahl first created Charlie (Chocolate factory) he was black, but his publishers or editor (not sure which) said that wouldn’t sell, and he should make Charlie white? I think most members of this group have read my article written nearly 6 years ago when a lot of people didn’t know what the term “woke” meant, but here’s a link just in case. If I was writing it today, I would add some of the points that you make, as not everyone reading the books will discuss the “of their era” issues with their children.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for having a) common sense and b) a sense of proportion, which is frustratingly rare on such discussions!

    I agree with much of what you said. I think it’s also really worth highlighting the excellent female characters Dahl wrote- look no further than the cast of Matilda for that. Sadly, too many campaigners (or should that be self-publicists?) prefer to seek out as much offense as they can possibly find than celebrate the positive.

    I think the Witches’ jobs sums up the problem in a nutshell. In their zeal for modernism they’re over-compensating, so it comes over as preachy. Across the population, ‘Top scientist’ and ‘running a business’ (the implication being a large business) aren’t common jobs, regardless of the male/female ratio. It also misses the point of the original line that Witches can be found all across society. Leaving the cashier as she was and changing the secretary to something else would have been a better solution in my opinion.


  3. Thank you for the thoughtful post on this matter! I hadn’t realised Blyton’s had so many changes made to her books (I knew there were new books but didn’t follow much) so it’s rather strange that Dahl’s changes made such a stir. But like you, I also agree that most of the changes were rather meaningless – it’s making the book debatably less offensive now, but I can see some of the terms (like “enormous” and “shrew”) being construed as offensive in a few years time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s