Wednesday 22 February 2023

The Great Roald Dahl Debate


Roald Dahl is in the news. Even people who generally have no interest at all in children’s books have noticed. Just in case this has passed you by or you’re reading some time in the future when the whole five-minute furore is in the past, here’s a quick summary:

Roald Dahl’s books are being rereleased with edits intended to make them more acceptable to a modern audience. The reactions – from all sorts of people, including Philip Pullman and the Prime Minister – have varied from ‘You must never touch a word of a writer’s published work’ to ‘Fantastic, now children will not be exposed to Dahl's racism, body-shaming, misogyny, etc’ and ‘Couldn’t they just publish the originals with footnotes and an introduction?’ There has also been ‘Why bother? There’s nothing special about Dahl.’

Should they meddle with an author’s work? I see no reason why not. The author is dead so has nothing to say about it. His estate is perfectly happy with the changes (and the financial reward). It’s nothing new. Children’s books have been published in updated versions forever. Netflix has acquired the rights to Dahl’s work. Of course they want to make money from the books. Their press-release called the books ‘Timeless Tales’. It’s probably impossible to make a book timeless, but here they are, making them up-to-date.

I enjoyed Dahl’s books as a child. My now grown-up children liked Dahl. The BFG is my favourite. They liked Danny the Champion of the World and Matilda. They adored The Enormous Crocodile. I do not remember finding anything particularly uncomfortable in Dahl as a child. It fitted with the cartoons and sitcoms I watched on TV. But the world has moved on. We do not offer children cruelty and othering and call it humour. (Well mostly we don’t.) Toning down these aspects of Dahl will make his work fit our twenty-first century children’s book model better.

Could the publishers have added footnotes and an introduction instead? Of course they could have. And if parents or teachers were reading the books to children, these things would have been discussed, no doubt, though quite probably a parent or teacher might have commented or changed words and ideas that troubled them as they read the old versions. But here’s the thing: most children would not read footnotes or an introduction. And if they did, they would be drawn out of the story, which is something you really don’t want to do to child readers.

The good thing about Dahl is that children want to read his books. The books have bold, lively heroes and memorable baddies, shocking disasters and soaring triumphs. Children are dying to turn the pages and find out what happens. When they’ve finished one of Dahl’s books, they feel satisfied by the story and they want to pick up another. This is how children develop reading fluency – by finding books that they don’t want to put down. When my eldest daughter was six, she brought home from the school bookfair two of the Rainbow Fairy books. She wasn’t a fluent reader at the time so I read the first one to her. The second one she read a page and then I read a page. She loved those books. I found them plodding and predictable. So when I discovered that she’d bought a pack of five of them with a book token I refused to read them. She took a week to read the next one on her own. Then two days for the next one. Then one a day until she’d read them all. I’m not going to argue for the Rainbow Fairy books’ place in the canon of children’s literature, but they have a purpose and they serve it well. They can turn children into readers. And so can Dahl.

But here’s the thing. So can many other books. New books, books with modern ideas, diverse characters, current language. Books that take place in a world today’s children recognise and engage with problems, ideas and circumstances that concern them. And no, I don’t just mean issue-driven books set in a contemporary world. Fantasy, historical, sci-fi, humour – all sorts of stories are different today.

That’s not to say that children shouldn’t read children’s books from the past. I would never say that! So many wonderful, brilliant books full of amazing stories exist for children to find and adults to share with them. Children need choice just like adults do – more so, because they’re still working out what types of books suit them.

The problem with children’s books is – as it ever was – that the books are bought by adults on the whole. Adults who don’t know anything about children’s books will go for the easy option – the book they recognise from their childhood, the book by that famous bloke off the TV. And the marketing people recognise this, so they push those books. It’s an obvious win. You own a property. There’s an easy market for it. The cost to the publisher is minimal. You just change the covers, print a bunch more and there they are on the shelf looking fresh and new. If you wander into WHSmith you won’t see a shelf full of books by a single author that are 40, 50 or 60 years old in the adult section. But there in the children’s section is a whole shelf of Dahl … and another of Enid Blyton (who has undergone her own modernisation more than once). And it’s not just bookshops. A lot of school libraries rely heavily on books donated when children have grown out of them. Their shelves are groaning under the weight of Dahl.

So here’s what I think. If we have to have Dahl, let’s have updated Dahl. But let’s have lots of exciting new books front and centre too. Please, marketing people, think about how you are serving the children who learning to be readers when you constantly cash in on old books. Concentrate instead on what would serve them best in their journey to becoming readers and then work out how to market those books to the adults who buy books. Give children choice.

*Please note that this piece is my personal view.

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