Roald Dahl: Ruth Langsford slams ‘dangerous’ changes to books
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Among history’s most celebrated and widely read authors, Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known by his pen name Dr Seuss, was born 119 years ago. In the decades afterwards, he would go on to create some of the literary world’s most cherished characters. From The Cat in the Hat to The Lorax, Dr Seuss helped open up the world of literacy to youngsters with his vivid imagination. But even though his colourful tales have endured the test of time, he was among a wave of authors who were nearly cancelled amid backlash over the depiction of certain characters.
Dr Seuss’ impact on the writing world saw him release more than 60 books until he died in 1991, selling an incredible 600 million copies globally. His work has been translated into at least 20 different languages.
Ahead of his birthday on March 2, US President Joe Biden complimented the author as he delivered a speech to promote the Read Across America Day campaign, an occasion for the country to “recognise the value of literacy to our democracy”.
He said: “‘The more that you read,’ Dr Seuss wrote, ‘the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’
“In other words, knowledge is power. Books impart lessons that enrich our lives, stimulate our curiosity, promote contemplation and reflection, and affirm the myriad possibilities available to every person.
“Reading transports kids to unique places where they can embrace unfamiliar ideas, develop their own intellect, and spark creativity in their lives.”
His choice of quoting the writer was surprising due to previous attempts to get the words of Dr Seuss, and other authors such as Roald Dahl, changed to better reflect the modern world.
It also came exactly two years after Mr Biden removed a reference to Dr Seuss in a similar speech to mark Read Across America Day.
At the time, one of Virginia’s biggest school districts, namely the Loudoun County Public Schools, told its teachers to avoid “connecting Read Across America Day with Dr Seuss”, claiming the “strong racial undertones” of his books were offensive.
A study from 2019, carried out by the Conscious Kid’s Library and the University of California examined 50 of Dr Seuss’ stories and found that of the 2,240 identifiable human characters, roughly two percent of them (45) were characters of colour.
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In 2022, Dr Seuss’ estate moved to change some of the words in his books, in the process sparking a huge debate over what should, and should not be preserved as “part of the cultural record”.
Among the stories to be changed was Mulberry Street, which the Dr Seuss estate said it would no longer be selling after describing some of the stereotypes contained within it as “hurtful and wrong”, the New York Times reported last year.
Some were less critical of the decision, including Philip Nel, a children’s literature scholar at Kansas State University and the author of the 2004 book Dr Seuss: American Icon.
He said the decision to stop selling the works or changing its wording would “cause people to re-evaluate the legacy of Dr Seuss and I think that’s a good thing.”
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He added: “There are parts of his legacy one should honour, and parts of his legacy that one should not.”
“They may be motivated by the fact that racism is bad for the brand, or they may be motivated by a deeper sense of racial justice.”
Authors Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, who published the 2019 essay, The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr Seuss’s Children’s Books, argued that many aspects of the author’s work contained racial undertones and that these should be considered.
They continued: “Minimising, erasing or not acknowledging Seuss’ racial transgressions across his entire publishing career deny the very real historical impact they had on people of colour and the way that they continue to influence culture, education, and children’s views of people of colour.”
But others vehemently defended the books, such as Valerie Lewis, co-owner of Hicklebee’s bookshop in California, who argued the contents offered people the chance to teach why certain words and meanings were no longer acceptable.
She said: “I think when there is something in a book that you find offensive, what a great teaching opportunity. We all have a choice as to whether we buy it or not but removing it kind of makes me want to shake my head.”
This sentiment was echoed by Cathryn Mercier, the children’s literature department chair at Simmons University, who said: “It’s one thing to take six books off the shelves. It’s something completely different to fundamentally change what’s on the shelves. And that is where children’s literature is right now.”
More recently, a similar row erupted in Britain when Roald Dahl’s books were set to be altered and censored, with some of his books’ more colourful language removed. Among the titles to be changed was family favourite Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The changes were set out by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, who said references to weight, mental health, gender and race would be cut out.
One character to see their appearance change was Augustus Gloop, traditionally a larger-than-life character who appears in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
In the book, he is described as being “enormously fat” but instead now is just “enormous”. Another to be amended includes the 1970 book, Fantastic Mr Fox, where the word “black” was taken out of a description of the “terrible tractors”.
It sparked condemnation from some of the world’s biggest literary names, including author Salman Rushdie, a supporter of free-speech, who has been subjected to death threats as a result of the alleged blasphemy in his novel, The Satanic Verses.
On Twitter, he wrote: “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.’”
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