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Roald Dahl books will be published in 'classic' form following editing controversy

The children's books' U.K. publisher changed language in the classics, inspiring backlash.
/ Source: TODAY

Penguin Random House announced on Friday it will republish Roald Dahl’s children’s books in original, or “classic,” form following ongoing editing controversy. 

This news is a response to the publisher's earlier decision to change language within Dahl's books currently in circulation in the U.K., which include "Matilda" and "James and the Giant Peach."

The altered language was first reported by the Daily Telegraph on Feb. 17. Words like "fat," "ugly" and "crazy" were edited out, and language related to gender, weight, appearance and more was altered.

Text at the bottom of the copyright page of the books explain the changes: “Words matter. The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvelous characters. This book was written many years ago and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”

Following widespread backlash from readers, literary minds and the queen consort herself, Penguin Random House will republish 17 of Dahl's unedited titles later this year as part of “The Roald Dahl Classic Collection." The other, altered versions put out by Puffin Books — the children’s imprint of Penguin Random House in the U.K. — will also remain in circulation.

The move was designed for readers to “choose which version of Dahl’s stories they prefer," per a press release.

Roald Dahl, who died in 1990 at the age of 74, was a complex figure. In addition to the push to make his books less offensive and more inclusive, his personal beliefs have also come under scrutiny. The author’s family apologized for his anti-semitic remarks in 2020.

But Dahl's books remain popular not only on bookshelves but on the big and small screen. Netflix and the Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights to the books, announced in 2021 they were teaming up to bring some of the classics to animated TV series.

With the censorship controversy, Dahl remains in the zeitgeist. Read on for more context about what happened, and why it matters.

What changes were made to Roald Dahl's books?

Puffin Books worked with a consulting group called Inclusive Minds to make changes to Dahl's books, published mostly from the 1960s to 1990.

The changes were made with the approval of the Roald Dahl Story Company, which owns the right to the author's work. The Roald Dahl Story Company said in a statement that it worked with Puffin Books to ensure the “wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.”

The changes to the beloved classics touched on weight, mental health, gender, race and ethnicity. 

The word "fat" was eliminated — in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” antagonist Augustus Gloop became “enormous” instead of “enormously fat.”

Attention was paid professional descriptions. In "The Witches,” women characters are now “top scientists" and "business owners" rather than a "cashier in a supermarket.”

Tweaks related to gender abounded: "Mothers" and "fathers" were switched to "family," "ladies and gentlemen" became "folks," "boys and girls" became "children." And in “James and the Giant Peach,” gender-neutral terms were adopted, with “Cloud-Men” becoming “Cloud-People.”

Colors were changed, too: The worm in "James and the Giant Peach" no longer has “lovely pink” skin but “lovely smooth skin.” Miss Spider's head isn't described as being black.

Dahl's work has been altered in the past. One of the author’s most well-known works, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” originally depicted the Oompa Loompas as African Pygmy people. Their appearances were altered in the 1971 movie, then changed in the book.

What was the response to the edits?

Soon after extensive changes to the children's classics were revealed, backlash from the literary community emerged.

Salman Rushdie, who has dealt with his works being censored and banned in Islamic countries and has faced attacks because of his writing, weighed in on Twitter.

“Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship,” he wrote. “Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

The queen consort of the United Kingdom seemed to speak out about the changes, too. During a reception for her book club on Feb. 23, Queen Camilla referenced censorship, urging writers to “remain true to your calling, unimpeded by those who may wish to curb the freedom of your expression or impose limits on your imagination.”

The edits have sparked criticism from free-speech groups, including PEN America. CEO Suzanne Nossel later took to Twitter to applaud Penguin Random House “for hearing out critics, taking the time to rethink this, and coming to the right place.”

What was the response from readers?

Altering Dahl’s original work also caused an uproar among readers, leading to the author's name trending on social media and a discussion about censorship.

In a video posted to her Bookish Realm YouTube channel, Ashley argued that some of the edits are “actually pushing us backwards.” 

"They are erasing the word ‘fat’ from a lot of his books,” she said. “For someone who is fat, who is reclaiming the use of the word fat, I don’t think that fat is an offensive word for everyone. And it’s not something that everyone who is fat feels like we should shy away from.”

Since the announcement on Friday, readers have been primarily praising the decision to rerelease the titles with authentic text. But others have disagreed, championing the newer inclusive writing.

So, which versions of Roald Dahl's books will be available to purchase now?

On Feb. 24, Penguin Random House announced that Dahl’s unedited books will now be available to purchase, once again, in the U.K.

“By making both Puffin and Penguin versions available, we are offering readers the choice to decide how they experience Roald Dahl’s magical, marvelous stories,” Francesca Dow, managing editor of Penguin Random House Children’s, said in a press release. 

The 17 titles of “The Roald Dahl Classics Collection” that will be released later this year are:

  • “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
  • “Matilda”
  • “The BFG” 
  • “Fantastic Mr Fox”
  • “George’s Marvellous Medicine” 
  • “James and the Giant Peach” 
  • “The Witches”
  • “The Twits” 
  • “The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me” 
  • “The Enormous Crocodile”
  • “Esio Trot”
  • “Billy and the Minpins”
  • “The Magic Finger”
  • “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” 
  • “Danny the Champion of the World” 
  • “Revolting Rhymes"
  • "Dirty Beasts”

What versions have readers in the U.S. been reading?

Dahl books published in the U.S. and the rest of Europe have remained unaltered.

“Roald Dahl books published by Penguin Young Readers and distributed in the U.S. are the editions that have existed for years and do not reflect the recent editorial changes made in U.K. editions. Penguin Young Readers regularly reviews its backlist and Dahl titles will be reviewed accordingly,” a statement to Publisher's Weekly read.