A report in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph last Friday sparked widespread controversy, revealing that new editions of Roald Dahl’s body of work issued by U.K. publisher Puffin Books (a division of Penguin Books UK) would contain language replacing some of the author’s original text, removing potentially offensive words including “fat,” “crazy," and “mad,” rewriting character descriptions, and adding completely new sentences. The decision was made to “ensure that Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today,” said a spokesperson for the Roald Dahl Story Company, which was purchased by Netflix in 2021.
The response from cultural critics, free expression advocates such as PEN America, and authors including Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, has been overwhelmingly critical. Rushdie wrote on Twitter, “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.” Author Philip Pullman suggested on BBC Radio 4 that rather than change the original text, the books should be allowed to “fade away” and go out of print. A spokesperson for British prime minister Rishi Sunak even weighed in, stating, “When it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the prime minister agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words.” However, there was also support for the changes. Author Debjani Chatterjee told the BBC World Service, “I think it’s been done quite sensitively. Take the word ‘fat.’ They’ve used ‘enormous.’ If anything, I actually think ‘enormous’ is even funnier.”
A spokesperson for Dahl’s U.S. publisher Penguin Young Readers told PW that there are no plans for similar revisions in the U.S. “Roald Dahl books published by Penguin Young Readers and distributed in the U.S. are the editions that have existed for years and do not reflect the recent editorial changes made in U.K. editions. Penguin Young Readers regularly reviews its backlist and Dahl titles will be reviewed accordingly.” According to the Daily Mail in the U.K., Dahl’s Dutch publisher De Fonte and French publisher Gallimard are also declining to make changes at this time. A spokesperson for De Fonte is quoted as saying that altering the text would cause the stories to “lose their power.” Gallimard shared this statement with the newspaper: “We have never changed Roald Dahl’s writings before, and we have no plans to do so today.”
A spokesperson for The Roald Dahl Story Company told CNN that the changes came about as part of an overall review of Dahl’s work in 2020, prior to the sale to Netflix, adding that “any changes made have been small and carefully considered.” However, the Telegraph reported that there were hundreds of changes across the author’s 16-book body of work, generally relating to gender, race, personal appearance, mental health, and violence. The company worked with Inclusive Minds in its review of Dahl’s catalog, a company described on its website as “an organisation that works with the children’s book world to support them in authentic representation, primarily by connecting those in the industry with those who have lived experience of any or multiple facets of diversity.”
A Roald Dahl Story Company spokesperson told the Telegraph, “It’s not unusual to review the language used alongside updating other details including a book’s cover and page layout. Our guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text.”
Speaking to The Bookseller, a Puffin spokesperson said that publishers “review and update language” periodically “as the meaning and impact of words changes over time. Children as young as five or six read Roald Dahl books and, often, they are the first stories they will read independently. With that comes a significant responsibility as it might be the first time they are navigating written content without a parent, teacher or carer.” Responding to the backlash, the spokesperson continued, “Within the context of the word count of the wider books, these textual changes are minimal. Roald Dahl’s stories remain unchanged and his mischievous spirit undiminished. They still celebrate and showcase his unique voice and his brilliantly rich storytelling. We are proud to have been his publishers since the 1980s and we’re honoured to continue to introduce Roald Dahl stories to new generations of readers.”
While Dahl’s books have been beloved by generations, translated into more than 50 languages and interpreted in film, stage and more, the author was known in his lifetime for both his sometimes gruff personality and his antisemitic statements. In 2020, the Roald Dahl Story Company apologized for these remarks, saying, “The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements.”
Writing for the Atlantic, journalist Helen Lewis said that Dahl’s work can “never be made nice,” stating that “his cold, unsettling spikiness is his defining quality as a writer” and that his popularity continues “despite being so thoroughly out of tune with the times.”
Editor's note: On Friday, February 25, Puffin UK announced that in response to the criticism over the changes, it would be releasing a Roald Dahl Classic Collection of Dahl's books with unaltered text. That edition will "sit alongside the newly released Puffin Roald Dahl books for young readers,” Puffin said in a statement.