A children’s author has warned it is a “bad idea” to prevent writers using certain words amid a fierce debate over Roald Dahl books being “airbrushed”.
t comes after representatives of the late British novelist’s estate and publisher, Puffin Books, confirmed classics including The BFG and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory have been rewritten to remove language that could be deemed offensive.
Former primary school teacher-turned-writer John Dougherty welcomed increased representation for all groups in literature, but expressed concerns that censorship could easily go too far.
“Publishers are going in the right direction, but there’s a danger at the moment of worrying too much about form rather than structure, worrying about individual words rather than attitudes, and it would be easy for publishers to take a wrong turn,” he said.
“With very few exceptions, it’s a bad idea to say you can’t use this word or that word.
“As writers we need access to all the tools. Of course, some tools are more dangerous than others and we have to be responsible, but to take the tools off us is just ridiculous.”
Significant chunks of Dahl’s most popular books have been rewritten with words such as “fat” and “ugly” culled.
Mr Dougherty, who was born in Larne but now lives in England, branded a review of Dahl’s children’s books, launched before Netflix bought the rights to the entire catalogue in 2021, as a “highly commercial decision” which does not respect the text.
“Perfectly reasonable descriptions are watered down just because somebody might take offence,” he said.
“Children deserve better and they deserve good wording. I don’t think it is healthy to take something that well written and water it down so that nobody can take offence.”
References relating to weight, mental health, violence, gender and race have all been cut or rewritten.
According the Daily Telegraph, Augustus Gloop in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory will now be described as “enormous” rather than “fat”, while Cloud-Men in James And The Giant Peach will become “Cloud-People”.
Mr Dougherty believes there are reasonable arguments for changing old books, but only if there is “genuine harm” posed by the original words.
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He agrees that indelicate references to bald women in The Witches should be edited, as it could negatively impact kids whose mums are going through chemotherapy.
“But the changes in many cases are very clumsy and lacking in respect for the original text.
“There is no reason on earth why the BFG shouldn’t wear a black cloak. That’s absurd. And Augustus Gloop — the whole point of the character is that he’s hugely overweight because he won’t stop eating. He’s greedy.”
The Queen’s University Belfast graduate said publishers should focus on tackling attitudes behind bullying, rather than on individual words which will only be replaced with other ‘bad’ words.
“If you think the attitudes in the books are wrong then don’t print them. And if you are happy with the attitudes then don’t change the language,” he said.
“Of course, it is not responsible to convey the message that somebody who doesn’t look very nice isn’t very nice on the inside, but the whole point of The Twits is that ‘no one who is good can ever be ugly’.
The writer recalled awkward conversations with his own publisher prior to the final draft of his upcoming picture book, The Hare-Shaped Hole, which gently explores themes of grief and loss.
Mr Dougherty said he insisted on keeping the word “die” during discussions about “appropriate language”.
“Some children will have already lost somebody close to them. I don’t want to sanitise the world and make it sterile and unrealistic,” he said.
Sir Salman Rushdie is among the critics of the changes, branding them as “absurd censorship”.
Even Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has warned that fictional works should be “preserved and not airbrushed” as he revealed he agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t “gobblefunk” around with words.
However, ex-teacher Kate Clanchy, who revised her own memoir after being criticised for some descriptions, said children’s books should be treated carefully.
“[Augustus Gloop] will still remain morally greedy and his moral greed will be wrong, whether or not we have lots of lots and lots of references to how fat he is, which I think can be upsetting,” she told BBC Radio 5 Live.
Leading literary agent Jonny Geller pointed out that Dahl had a long history of expounding anti-Semitic views, examples of which he shared online.
“I find it harder to overlook a man who said these things,” he tweeted.
The Roald Dahl Story Company insists any changes from the review process are “small and carefully considered” to ensure the “wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today”.