A page too far: Why rewriting Roald Dahl’s books isn’t the answer

Opinion: Kids need to know what was, so that they can do better

Opinion article written by Brooke Hill

Roald Dahl’s books are being rewritten through a politically correct lens.

And it makes me feel… a bit biffsquiggled.

Roald Dahl in a red jumper
Roald Dahl’s classic books are being rewritten. Photo: Getty Images

Here’s a quick rundown of what’s been changed:

The publisher of Dahl’s works, which include Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach, engaged sensitivity readers to adapt the texts for today’s audience.

All references to ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ have been removed.

The Oompa Loompas are now gender neutral, and the Cloud-Men in James and The Giant Peach are now Cloud-People.

There is a new explanation for why women might choose to wear wigs in The Witches, and Miss Trunchbull in Matilda is now a ‘formidable woman’ not a ‘formidable female’.

The stories remain the same, and the tweaks carry the same raucous energy and tone. So materially, the books are the same.

Brooke Hill
Author Brooke Hill gives her thoughts on the Roald Dahl rewrites. Photo: Jade Warne
Roald Dahl's Matilda and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
All references to ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ have been removed from books such as Matilda and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Photo: AAP

So why does this make my stomach itch?

There is no doubt about it; we should be raising our kids to be inclusive, and helping them carve out a world of inclusivity. I love and applaud a more inclusive approach in a retelling of old stories. Let’s cast more women of colour in roles traditionally owned by white women; let’s see a disabled Disney princess on screen. These are important retellings; seen through the lens of the eyes of today, and expand our world view.

But that’s just it: they are retellings. They aren’t rewritings.

There is no place for language or stories that are exclusive

If Roald Dahl was writing today, there is no way those words would have made it to print. And rightly so.

But is the answer rewriting historical fiction through rose-coloured glasses? Removing uncomfortable things from the past so that we can present to our kids a picture of the world as we’d like it to be? Doesn’t that narrow their world view?

Charlie and The Chocolate Factory
Some of Roald Dahl's most beloved children’s books, including Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (pictured) are getting a makeover. Photo: Getty Images

Removing those words removes us of an opportunity to learn

Keeping politically incorrect words in books like these gives us an opportunity to talk to our kids about it as we read them. It gives us a chance to decide what words we think are kind and unkind.

Removing politically incorrect words undermines our children’s capacity to understand nuance and context. Does a child actually use words like squifflerotters and grinksludgers in real life? No. They understand that certain words belong in the context of a story, and that in that story they should stay. And while gobblefunking words are obviously very different to the words that Roald Dahl’s publishers have removed, it’s still underestimating our kids’ ability to understand, learn and grow.

Instead of a rewrite, a publisher foreword could bring this to our attention, and encourage conversation. Point out that it was written in a different time, and those times have changed, and that literature can make us feel uncomfortable, and it’s open to discussion.

Here’s an example of how this could play out, from just last week.

My daughter and I were reading Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. As we were reading, I noticed that Jo always leads the way up the tree so that he can protect the girls, and that Fanny (who is now called Frannie… don’t get me started) is always crying. I point this out to her, and ask her what she thinks.

‘I don’t think Jo should go first just because he is a boy,’ she says emphatically.

Darn right, he shouldn’t! We talk about how this was a book that was written in the past, and that things are different now. That when we read this book, we need to take it with a grain of salt. And interestingly, my daughter puts Fanny’s crying down to her being the youngest and tired, not because she’s a girl. My daughter took away a totally different context - she didn’t have the same lens that I did, and that makes for a more interesting conversation.

My point is, we need to learn from our mistakes, not erase them. If we raise kids in a world of round edges, they’ll never know what they have to push hard against. Kids need to know what was, so that they can do better.

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