Sensitivity readers bring Roald Dahl ‘up to date’, Dutch publisher critical

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Willy Wonka and the Oompa Loompas in a 1971 film adaptation
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  • Eliane Lamper

    editor online

The well-known characters in Roald Dahl’s children’s books are no longer fat, ugly or stupid in the latest British edition. The several hundred changes in his books mainly lead to a different characterization of the characters. It should bring the stories “up to date” and make them accessible to everyone, says British publisher Puffin.

Dahl’s stories are often strange, funny, creepy and sometimes a little sadistic. “It is precisely the politically incorrect that makes it charming, and ensures that children like it,” says Bo van Houwelingen, literature critic for de Volkskrant. “Roald Dahl would never have adapted this himself, I think he was also interested in the provocation.”

Dahl’s books, who died in 1990, have sold many millions of copies. A group of sensitivity readers recently reviewed his classics. These are proofreaders who check a text for sensitivities.

The adaptations are made in agreement with the Roald Dahl Story Company, the company that owns the rights to all stories and characters. Caspar Slok from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now described as “huge” instead of “fat” and Mrs. Creepy is no longer called “ugly”.

The Oompa Loompas are from now on “little people” instead of “little men”. In The Fantastic Mister Fox, the little foxes are now female. The book The Witches states that witches are bald and therefore wear wigs. The new version added that there are a “lot of other reasons why women wear wigs and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.”

Stories in a modern jacket

The adjustments may be related to commercial interests, says Van Houwelingen. “They probably see it as a great opportunity to make it available to more children. As parents, you sometimes have to actively look for other role models. In some Jip and Janneke stories, the mother is at home doing the laundry and the father is reading newspaper or is at work. Sometimes it’s good to breathe new life into a story.”

Updating older children’s books is nothing new. For example, old-fashioned words in the stories of Annie MG Schmidt have been made more modern. The language used in the originally Swedish books about Pippi Longstocking has also been adjusted: in the original version, her father was called ‘Negro King’. In the new edition he is ‘King of the South Seas’. Language that is now perceived as racist is being adapted more often.

Publisher De Fontein, which publishes the Dutch editions of Dahl’s books, is critical of the decision. The director says he will talk to the British publisher about it, he says in Trouw. According to him, Dahl’s humor lies precisely in the exaggerations and stereotypes. Well-known writers, including Salman Rushdie, have expressed their displeasure with the decision online.

British children’s book author Roald Dahl in 1980

It is a development that has been going on for a number of years in the United States and Great Britain, sees children’s book author Anna Woltz, who is known for My particularly strange week with Tess, among other things. “I also have to change words when my books are published there. Words like freak or crazy are not allowed.”

An adjustment is always made in consultation with the author, says Woltz. “As a children’s author you always take your audience into account, especially when you write for young children. But it’s crampy to keep things away. I also write about painful and difficult subjects, such as a child who finds out that one day everyone die around him.”

A theme that children also have to deal with in their real lives, says the writer. “Dutch children’s book authors are known for being daring.” And that is precisely why Dutch books are so popular abroad, thinks Woltz. Her books have been published in twenty-five languages.

‘No clear cut in literature’

In the United States it is now customary for a sensitivity reader to read along with a new novel. This will also happen more often in the Netherlands, thinks Van Houwelingen. “Such a person, for example, pays attention to whether the author has empathized well, and gives advice on this. Some writers see it as censorship, others like it. They don’t want to overlook any sensitivities.”

That does not have to lead to a uniform sausage in Dutch literature, says the reviewer. “We really don’t have to be afraid of a clear cut in the literary landscape. In the Netherlands there are so many publishers that publish books with unique themes and special writers. Every good book can go somewhere.”

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