A few weeks back, I saw a sudden outrage about the latest editions of Roald Dahl classics being censored to remove several objectionable words. It took me some time to read up on what exactly the issue was. And when I did, I wondered if the kind of outrage that I saw was warranted, considering the kind of changes that had been made. I am sure that I would be at the receiving end of this outrage, seeing the abundance of criticism that has come the way of whoever was responsible for this censorship. I do understand that making changes to someone else’s writing, decades after the original work was published, is bound to have dangerous ramifications. Trust me, I am not one for twisting others’ words or writing to change their meaning or send out a different narrative, or basically butcher one’s writing to fit another’s propaganda. And there certainly must be measures against those. But should “preserving history” really mean sending out a bad message to the target audience of these books – impressionable young readers?
Back in 2020, much before all this happened, I had written a blog about how difficult it was for me to read stories like Cinderella to Vedu, since I find myself stopping every now and then to omit words like ‘fat,’ ‘ugly’ etc., or explain why some concepts mentioned in the story were not right. https://insanereverie.in/fairy-tales-maybe-not-so-fair/
I have found such words or usages in most of the old children’s books, the very famous ones, even from much-loved writers like Enid Blyton (one of my favourites). I have also found similar usages while reading through Agatha Christie’s (another favourite) murder mysteries. But at my age, when I read about Hercule Poirot describing someone as ugly, or the characters talking about inheriting money as a silver lining to someone’s death, I don’t immediately get offended or jump to the conclusion that they are evil villains. I understand that a story written in a different era would have different implications, to even seemingly horrid words. But the problem is that those very same usages, spoken innocently in those stories, were the reason a number of social evils got hardened in the minds of the generations to come, making bullying and exclusion based on those very parameters or ideas, everyday occurrences.
Yes, I would let go of the wrongs I read in a story that is appropriate for my age. But do I want my kids reading the same wrongs in their stories, even the ones hailed as classics, and getting those ideas ingrained in their young minds? It is easy to “preserve history” and dish out the same old stories, uncensored in every way, to our kids in the pretext of making them culturally enriched by reading the old classics. But along with the classics, we are dishing out the same old evils too. How many times would we really be able to gulp down a word while reading to them? And when they are old enough to read by themselves, how many of these wrongs can we caution them about, before we gift them a classic to read?
I can’t count the number of times I have to change “The Fat Controller” to simply “The Controller,” while reading stories from the classic Thomas the Tank Engine series. Does that mean Rev. W. Awdry was a cruel, fat-shaming person? We are just moving away from things that were wrongly considered funny or innocent remarks back in the day. Especially with the kind of bullying that we see in schools and on the Internet, the last thing I would want is for my daughters to imbibe cruelty as normal, in this already cruel world, only because they are part of the books their very own parents have gifted them. Doesn’t that make us totally responsible for that learning? When I tell them that it is wrong to call a person ‘ugly’ or ‘fat,’ why would I want them to read about ‘The Fat Controller?’ Why would I have any problem with an explanation that every woman who is bald and wears a wig is not a witch? Would I rather have them perceive someone who wears a wig to cover up their bald head after battling a terrible sickness, as a witch, because they have read a classic story about bald witches in wigs?
So yes, please feel free to bash me for supposedly distorting history and ruining the legacy of celebrated authors. And feel free to brand it as people being ‘woke’ or ‘pseudo intellectual.’ But as a mother, if I get a copy of the much-loved classics minus these derogatory words or ideas that I would need to contradict or omit every single time, it would make my life much easier, and my girls’ learning from these amazing books, that much more positive. That doesn’t make it a change to the story or its essence in any way, nor is it an insult to the authors. That just means that our kids get to enjoy these classics fully, without ever compromising their sense of inclusivity, which is, in my opinion, the biggest learning for kids in this era. And we are not talking about changing every shred of literature that has ever come out; we are simply talking about children’s books being made more appropriate to them. What’s to complain in that??
Just remember, if we kept every belief, every tradition, every line of thought that existed a century back in an attempt to “preserve history,” we would never have made any headway, we would still be stuck in a world just as it was a century back. Whatever makes at least the next generation a little kinder, is always welcome.
Also published on Medium.