22 February 2023

James and The Giant Peach Tar Baby

Sorry to say, but I’m clutching my pearls, here.  Roald Dahl’s publisher, Puffin, an imprint of Penguin, has released new editions of Dahl’s children’s stories with the nasty bits smoothed out. 

We can concede, from the get-go, that Roald Dahl wasn’t the nicest guy, and a lot of it leaks into his writing.  His heavies, primarily bullying adults, are thoroughly unpleasant and scary, but in a way that kids can identify with.  His grotesques are all too genuine; they rival Dickens.  The darkness, however, and the violence, are part and parcel.  Roald Dahl isn’t Roald Dahl without them. 

Now, we know Little Black Sambo is offensive, and it wasn’t all that long ago that the Nancy Drew books were edited to make her more relevant to the contemporary audience, and to eliminate the more egregious racial and class stereotypes in the originals.  For that matter, has anybody read Dr. Dolittle lately?  I thought they were wildly inventive, when I read them (I was, what, eleven or twelve?), but I’m guessing they don’t pass the smell test, nowadays, at least in terms of the way native peoples, say, are presented. 

I’m talking more about bowdlerizing stuff that doesn’t seem to require it.  The Telegraph published an exhaustive list of the changes made the Dahl’s books, and Helen Lewis has a terrific piece in the Atlantic.   [Links below]  One edit that caught my attention was in Matilda, where her choice of reading is changed from Kipling to Jane Austen.  I have nothing but respect for Austen, but eliminating a reference to Kipling – because he’s now considered an apologist for colonialism, or white supremacy? – when with all his faults he’s still one of the great children’s writers, is petty.

Roald Dahl, while we’re on the subject, is one of the most borrowed writers in the British library system.  He’s consistently in Amazon’s top five best-selling children’s authors. 

 His sales to date are reported to have topped 250 millions books.  Why does he need re-branding? 

Thirty years after his death, Dahl’s family publicly apologized for his perceived anti-Semitism.  I don’t mean “perceived” to be a weaselly adjective; he said a lot of ill-thought-through and provoking things, and it’s safe to say he subscribed to any number of cruel stereotypes.  Many of his villains, and especially villainesses, are grossly obese.  He’s a fat-shamer, no question.  He draws an equivalency between obesity and moral weakness.  A close reading probably demonstrates casual racism and a reflexive misogyny. 

I’m not trying to excuse any of this.  But why whitewash it?  What seems to catch and hold Dahl’s younger readership is his anarchy and irreverence.  Leave it be.




  1. Good! I agree, David! I love Dahl (and Kipling!) especially the short stories. I went out the other day to my local used store and bought a bunch of unexpurgated Dahl kids books in their printings from about fifteen years ago.

  2. I'm totally with you on this. This was ridiculous "updating", especially replacing Kipling with Austen? Hardly. I hated Austen as a child, along with George Eliot (I read both of them now with great pleasure), but oh, how I LOVED Kipling - I read and re-read Kim and the Jungle Books until I can literally recite certain passages verbatim to this day. And what's next? Changing Laura Ingalls Wilder so that her Ma doesn't hate Indians anymore? Probably.

  3. Remember though that Puffin's aim is to make money, including not falling afoul of criticism from the right, not just the political left, such as having books pulled from the shelves of school libraries in Florida, et al., in the US. In that light, the substitution of Austin for Kipling is easy, girls "shouldn't be encouraged" to read "boy books" instead of those for girls, lest it give them lesbian ideas -- or even worse, trans! Yes, I think it's silly but, if I were a school librarian and retaining books claimed to potentially "confuse" children about gender could result in jail time...

  4. Sorry, that's James Dorr, not Anonymous -- I must have the wrong kind of account or something.

  5. I confess I've never read a Dahl children's book, not one. But I've read Kipling and Austen and Haggard and Burroughs and London and probably lots of others that are in bad graces now.

    And I read Nancy Drew. After Edward Stratemeyer's daughter began rewriting the novels, readers complained Nancy had lost something, mainly spunk and spontaneity. She had been 'tamed'.

    As a kid I read adult novels, but even when I read children's stories, I didn't want to be talked down to. I want my readers the same way, that we can talk as adults without the word police stepping in to ruin grown-up conversations.

    As for Tar Baby, modern readers don't realize the meaning has changed. Originally, it was a brilliant folk story that came from Africa, a tale we should take pride in. Now it's become a racial slur, evoking a notion almost the opposite of what was intended. What a cultural loss.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>