It's Roald Dahl's characters, so richly-drawn, sometimes bizarre and often fantastical, who stay with readers, especially the children who are entering his worlds for the first time.
An eccentric and scary-seeming factory owner, who creates a chocolate wonderland. A gentle giant who eats snozzcumbers rather than children, and likes to catch dreams. A powerful witch who looks like a glamorous woman until she removes her disguise. And a sometimes naughty girl who loves to read and whose magical powers triumph over a frightening headmistress.
Every detail is precisely painted, every word carefully chosen.
But future readers of Dahl's work could encounter different versions of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "The BFG," "The Witches" or "Matilda." Puffin Books, Dahl's publisher, is rewriting Dahl's beloved books, making hundreds of changes. Some rewrites change a word, others remove or alter full passages. Even though the original books still will be available, the changes are problematic.
Besides one-word changes, like removing "fat" or replacing "men" with "people," some of Dahl's wondrous language is gone, according to The Telegraph, a British newspaper that published a comprehensive list.
"In another minute, this mammoth fruit was as round and large and fat as Aunt Sponge herself, and probably just as heavy," Dahl wrote in "James and the Giant Peach." The passage is being removed.
Rather than sailing with Joseph Conrad or going to India with Rudyard Kipling, Matilda, in her reading adventures, visits estates with Jane Austen and goes to California with John Steinbeck. While no specific reason was given, the changes could reflect concern over those authors' focus on colonialism and imperialism.
Today, we are rightly concerned with the words we choose, and the ways we discuss gender, appearance and more.
Some changes to Dahl's work are meant to make his writing more palatable, more attuned to modern sensibilities. But Dahl's books are a product of a certain time and place. Rewriting isn't the answer.
This isn't the first attempt to rewrite or censor important works. Efforts to ban or rework "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or drop "To Kill a Mockingbird" from school curricula over the use of a racist slur reflect this dangerous and slippery slope.
Instead of banning or rewriting books, we should use them as opportunities to teach, explore the thinking of the era, provide context, answer questions, and give children new ways of reflecting on language and storytelling.
This isn't just a lesson for children. When the musical "Cabaret" was first written, a song called "If You Could See Her" portrayed the Emcee dancing with and expressing love for a gorilla. The shocking conclusion: "If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn't look Jewish at all." It was later rewritten to avoid upsetting theatergoers, instead using the word "meeskite," Yiddish for "ugly."
Here, too, context is key. "Cabaret" depicts prewar Berlin, where Nazi power looms and antisemitism reigns. The original language reflected that moment; its replacement did not.
Like theater, books are meant to provoke, to make us think and discuss, even to offend.
Dahl, who died in 1990, was an incredible storyteller who impacted generations of children. He was also a flawed, complicated man, whose legacy was marred particularly by his antisemitic comments. It would be inappropriate to rewrite Dahl's biography to portray him as only a giant in children's literature, without the rest. Rewriting his work now does a disservice to Dahl, to the characters he created, and to the young readers who've yet to explore the worlds of his imagination.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.