When I was an editor in training, two things were drilled into my head:

  • Don’t mess with the author’s voice.
  • Don’t introduce mistakes.

The first one has been on my mind lately with respect to the controversy over the estate of Roald Dahl rewriting and revising some passages of his popular children’s novels with modern sensitivities *cough* sales *cough* in mind.

This is not a phenomenon restricted to children’s books, as the ruffled feathers caused by similar recent rewrites in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels demonstrates, but it does seem to happen a lot with books and series aimed at children. I suppose it is driven by the meeting of nostalgia and change, an uncomfortable place to be when, say, a parent pulls a book they enjoyed as a child to read to their own children and runs straight into something that now has become distasteful, even unnacceptable.

For instance, I am a big fan of all things “Little House” – books, TV series, history. In recent years, that pioneer narrative has been called into question, particularly the portrayal of Indigenous/Native Americans and the glorification of settlement, not to mention the blackface minstrel show (with illustration) in Little Town on the Prairie. OK, fair enough, but can I still thrill a little to the intricate details of building log cabins and horse-and-buggy-ride romance?

If you start at the very beginning, cracking open Little House in The Big Woods and reading the first chapter, meeting Laura and Mary and Ma and Pa Ingalls who live in a little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, you will soon find yourself in the midst of a very fine recounting of … butchering a pig and preparing the meat for winter, literally from tail (a special treat for the girls roasted over a cookstove fire) to head (oh, so that’s what headcheese is really made of!?). This first book in the series was published in the 1930s; I struggle to imagine a modern children’s book editor or publisher who would stet this scene as an opener now, with illustrations of kids batting around the freshly killed pig’s bladder like a balloon and all. So far as I know, no one’s messed with the words of Little House yet.

Other books that I read as a kid and a teen have not escaped revision to keep up with the times. The Nancy Drew books have famously been rewritten and reissued regularly since the 1930s. The complicated sanitary pad technology described by Judy Blume in 1970s era Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. has been rewritten so as not to confuse new generations of readers (though reading a vintage edition would help explain why Kotex Classic is funny). Lois Duncan updated several of her YA thrillers to modernize them, giving characters new technology like cellphones and computers and figuring out how they could be worked into the plot. Interestingly, these kind of revisions can help reset the clock on the copyright on the works – though I wish publishers would make it clear on the covers and on Amazon when they are selling a revised edition, because some of us are trying to get our hands (back) on the originals! (Pity the ebook readers who automatically have their books swapped with revised text and covers by publishers.)

But the Roald Dahl controversy has been a little different, as he is now dead and unable to defend these changes. Notoriously not the nicest guy in the world, and more than a bit twisted as his stories aimed at adults demonstrate, his original depictions of the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had to be changed in the 1970s to remove original references to them being “African pygmies” and having been “smuggled in packing cases” by Willy Wonka to his factory – a pointed reference to the slave trade that the NAACP justifiably found offensive. Apparently, the US publisher threatened to stop selling his books if changes weren’t made. The new round of changes by the estate of Roald Dahl and their sensitivity readers took it a step further by making the Oompa-Loompas “gender-neutral” – changing them from “little men” to “little people.”

It may be beyond my pay grade to say, but if a book becomes well and truly outdated, and the author would not have wanted to change it or agree to the type of changes being made, perhaps we have to let things go out of print. Like Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool or To Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street that were deemed by the copyright owners and publishers to have unsuitable content for today’s readers and pulled from future print runs. Fox News hair-on-fire reporting notwithstanding, this doesn’t mean no one can have a copy or that the books will be rounded up and burned, just letting it go from new sales without removing the offending parts or censoring the author’s unique voice and expressions. Not everything stands the test of time. As Bender said in the Breakfast Club, “Screws fall out all the time; the world is an imperfect place.”

Or, crazy thought, adapt the thing into a new work for a new time. Remakes are done all the time for movies. Classic novels have often been abridged (that’s fancy talk for shortened) for younger or ESL readers. There are many things we can do besides going into another author’s work and renovating it to our own taste, our own sensitivities. That was the thing I was always told NOT to do, and to always make every effort to preserve the author’s voice and respect the work I’m editing, and to not let my own preferences guide my marking pen. Along with grammar, spelling and punctuation, it is part of my job to point out any potential legal issues (say, libel or using copyrighted material without permission) and to query any racist/sexist language or assorted -isms in the text. Thankfully, I haven’t run into too much of that sort of thing (I have lovely clients), but it can crop up mostly unintentionally; we all have our blind spots.

In the end, Puffin (publisher of Roald Dahl’s in-print works) has decided to keep selling the older, badder editions alongside the newer, revised ones – a win for edition labelling, in my books. If you’re a fan of his books from childhood, I recommend you also try to get your hands on some of his books and horror stories for adults. They’re fun and sensitivity readers would really hate them.