A U.K.-based plan to tone down some of the offensive language in Roald Dahl's classic works grabbed the headlines this week, with an overwhelming consensus that rewriting Dahl's words was, well, just wrong. A report in Publishers Weekly this week rounded up the reaction and pointed out a few key details, including that Dahl’s U.S. publisher, Penguin Young Readers, had no plans for similar revisions in the U.S. market.
But today the U.K. publisher, Puffin, announced a change to what should have been the plan all along: the edits to Dahl's works will exist as new editions, not as replacements.
"The Roald Dahl Classic Collection will sit alongside the newly released Puffin Roald Dahl books for young readers, which are designed for children who may be navigating written content independently for the first time," Puffin announced in a February 24 statement. "Readers will be free to choose which version of Dahl’s stories they prefer."
In a statement, Francesca Dow, managing director of Penguin Random House Children’s said: “At Puffin we have proudly published Roald Dahl’s stories for more than forty years in partnership with the Roald Dahl Story Company. Their mischievous spirit and his unique storytelling genius have delighted the imaginations of readers across many generations. We’ve listened to the debate over the past week which has reaffirmed the extraordinary power of Roald Dahl’s books and the very real questions around how stories from another era can be kept relevant for each new generation."
In a blog post this week, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel offered a compelling take on the Dahl controversy: "While editors and publishers might be tempted to try to excise ideas or words from the past that offend us today, either because of harmful stereotypes or cruel language against groups or individuals, we can’t go about ridding these regrettable ideas and words from the past, without potentially diluting the power of the original text and the story itself,” Nossel writes. "Much of literature could be construed as offensive to someone—based on race, gender, religion, age, economic or other status or myriad other factors. Rather than playing around with an author’s original text, we would find more value as readers if editors and publishers offered context in a preface or introduction that prepares modern readers for the material to help them understand the setting in which the original words were written. Otherwise, we risk distorting the work of great authors and clouding the essential lens that literature offers on society.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship reports that it delivered a letter to the Forest Hills (Michigan) Public School Board in Grand Rapids, Michigan, last week, identifying 10 books that were secretly removed by its superintendent in violation of the school district’s reconsideration policy. The letter comes after the NCAC had alerted the school board to an audio recording suggesting the superintendent had ordered an administrator to remove books with “R-rated content" without a proper review. The superintendent reportedly admitted to parents that he had "weeded" some titles that weren't being used, but denied banning any books, the NCAC claims.
In a curious (and entirely predictable) discovery, however, the NCAC has now learned that a number of the books "weeded" (...by a superintendent?) are in fact titles "frequently challenged around the country, including The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf, Nineteen Minutes: A Novel by Jodi Picoult, It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris, Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, and Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. The NCAC is renewing its call for an investigation and for the books to be returned to library shelves.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that a state lawmaker has joined Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft's "attempt to block public funding for libraries" if they offer allegedly "pornographic" material to minors. "Rep. Mazzie Boyd, a freshman Republican from Hamilton, filed a bill last week that would institute punitive damages against Missouri’s 160 local public libraries and their employees if they violate the law." The paper reports that the 24 year-old Boyd previously worked in the Trump White House and in Marjorie Taylor Greene’s congressional office. Ashcroft's sweeping proposed rule, which was first introduced last year, is strongly opposed by librarians in the state.
In Arkansas, from the local Saline Courier, news is in that the Arkansas Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would hold municipal or school library staff criminally liable for furnishing materials deemed “obscene” to minors. The bill now heads to a full Senate vote. "As libraries, we don't own judicially recognized obscene materials. We also respect the First Amendment, allowing parents the freedom to choose what is appropriate for their children to checkout instead of other parents or even librarians," a spokesperson with the Saline County Library told reporters, in response.
In North Dakota, The Bismarck Tribune reports that two bills to ban sexually explicit materials from public libraries passed in the state's House and Senate late last week, both with veto-proof majorities. House Bill 1205 passed in a 65-28 vote and now heads to the Senate, while Senate Bill 2360, passed 38-9, and now goes to the House. "The bill mandates public libraries to come up with policies and processes before next year for removing and disposing of 'explicit sexual material,' handling requests to remove books, developing age-appropriate book collections, and periodically reviewing collections. Libraries also would have to submit a 'compliance report' to lawmakers," The Tribune reports, adding that "employees of school districts, state agencies and public libraries" would not be exempt from prosecution. "You go sell your books in some other state," the top House's top Republican commented.
In the New York Times, author Taylor Brorby has a personal essay about the impact of these new laws in North Dakota and elsewhere. "Growing up in the closet in North Dakota in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I found sanctuary in libraries that I couldn’t find anywhere else," Brorby writes. "My heart breaks to think of all the kids now who won’t have that option. Libraries should be places where everyone is welcomed, no matter who they are, and where everyone can find themselves reflected in the stories on the shelves. Laws like these make that a lot less likely."
From Wyoming Public Radio, a short report on how book banning bills are expanding throughout the western states, though, in a bit of good news, Wyoming lawmakers rejected a measure to ban sexually explicit materials from the public library earlier this month. “There’s nothing worse to tell a young person than that the books that address your life and your experiences or simply answer your questions about topics like gender identity, sexual orientation, or race are considered to be inappropriate to read,” said ALA's Deborah Caldwell-Stone in the piece.
In her weekly censorship roundup in Book Riot, Kelly Jensen praises Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker for taking a strong stand against books bans in an important venue: his state of the state address. "There is a virulent strain of nationalism plaguing our nation, led by demagogues who are pushing censorship, with a particular attack right now on school board members and library trustees. It’s an ideological battle by the right wing, hiding behind a claim that they would protect our children—but whose real intention is to marginalize people and ideas they don’t like," Pritzker said. "Our nation has a great history, and much to be proud of. I want my children to learn that history. But I don’t want them to be lied to. I want them to learn our true history, warts and all. Illinois’s young people shouldn’t be kept from learning about the realities of our world. I want them to become critical thinkers, exposed to ideas that they disagree with, proud of what our nation has overcome, and thoughtful about what comes next." Jensen writes that more politicians must stand up as Pritzker has: "May this be the model for other states."
Also in Book Riot, Jensen reports that "a new proposed book rating system" is a step closer to passage in Oklahoma. "Senate Bill 397, proposed by Oklahoma State Senator Warren Hamilton (Republican), was given an emergency status and passed the Senate chamber," Jensen reports. "The bill, which has a high likelihood of passing the House and landing on the governor’s desk, would require every school library collection throughout the state to conduct an inventory and rate each title on their newly created scale."
First Coast News in Florida reports that a Duval County substitute teacher, Brian Covey, has been fired, after posting a viral video showing rows of empty bookshelves in the school's library in response to Florida's new laws governing which books are appropriate.
From the Association of Research Libraries, a release about its annual salary survey. Access to the full survey is fee-based, but the ARL release includes a couple interesting data points (as well as information on how to access the full report): "The median salary for professionals in U.S. ARL university libraries in 2021 was $77,353, an increase of 1.2% over the 2020 median salary of $76,400. The U.S. CPI rose 5.4% during the same period." The release also notes that "individuals from historically underrepresented groups make up 19% of the professional staff" in U.S. ARL university libraries, and that "the percentage of individuals in managerial or administrative positions who are also from historically underrepresented groups is lower."
How would you handle these titles, librarians? From Reuters, a report on the rising number of books being written by ChatGPT. "There were over 200 e-books in Amazon’s Kindle store as of mid-February listing ChatGPT as an author or co-author," the article states, adding that "due to the nature of ChatGPT and many authors' failure to disclose they have used it, it is nearly impossible to get a full accounting of how many e-books may be written by AI."
Library advocacy group Library Futures has issued a policy paper on the issue of digital ownership in libraries. The paper provides a solid overview of why the important work of libraries is threatened in a world where access to digital works can only be licensed. "The library community has the potential to call in publishers and other entities who share a commitment to ensuring a sustainable future for libraries in the modern digital environment," the paper states. "Library Futures encourages publishers to recognize their shared responsibility to perpetuate the distribution of culture and knowledge to readers, and the importance of libraries and archives in this goal. We want digital materials to be equitable, discoverable, usable, and high quality, and we hope to support publishers in order to build a healthy ecosystem for writers, publishers, libraries, and learners of all types."
And finally this week, from the New York Times, a follow up from Elisabeth Egan and Erica Ackerberg on their recent photo essay "A Love Letter to Libraries, Long Overdue." The article features user comments, many of which are powerful reminders of why the library is such a vital, and beloved institution.
"Of course, we heard from people who feel that their libraries are too loud and too crowded. There was an energetic debate about whether or not audiobooks stick with a reader as reliably as the printed word does; as always, the listeners won. Two librarians resisted the 'shushing' stereotype. They had a point," Egan and Ackerberg write. "But overall, the 770 responses added up to a warm tidal wave of adoration for libraries and all they represent: freedom, independence, adventure, exploration, experimentation, ideas, ingenuity and so much more."
The Week in Libraries is a weekly opinion and news column. News, tips, submissions, questions or comments are welcome, and can be submitted via email.
Previous columns can be viewed here.