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Gen Y Speaks: Roald Dahl’s rewrites don’t rattle me, because the Twits will still be all right after the tweaks

Years ago, I visited a quaint English village where the author Roald Dahl lived and wrote for more than three decades, and where his grave now lies next to the footprint of a gentle beast, the BFG. 

Gen Y Speaks: Roald Dahl’s rewrites don’t rattle me, because the Twits will still be all right after the tweaks
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Years ago, I visited a quaint English village where the author Roald Dahl lived and wrote for more than three decades, and where his grave now lies next to the footprint of a gentle beast, the BFG. 

The quiet town located about two hours from London was also home to a museum dedicated to the author and his most delightful characters. 

As a kid, I had spent many hours poring over Dahl’s stories, marvelling and giggling at the “gloriumptious” characters and their unpredictable hijinks, so I thought I would enjoy the museum. 

But when I got there, I was surrounded by school groups and toddlers and thought the whimsically colourful and kid-sized exhibits were a little too childish for my taste.

It struck me that new generations of children and youth, who will have a different worldview and sensitivities from mine, will be and have always been Dahl’s main audience.

Maybe that is why contrary to widespread criticism, I think his publisher Puffin Books’ decision to update the language of his books, which remain so enthralling to children today, is the right move.  

Several decades have passed since Dahl’s children's books were published between the 1960s and 1980s. 

But the villainous grown ups in his tales — the Twits, Miss Trunchbull and James’ aunts to name a few — will probably still be hilariously horrible after the edits. 

One of Dahl’s most famous observations in The Witches about how ugly thoughts makes a person ugly has stuck with me over the years. Likewise “ugly” words in today’s context matter too, especially for young minds.

Various reports suggest that hundreds of changes have been made such that language relating to gender, race, weight, mental health and violence have been cut or rewritten. 

The Roald Dahl Story Company, who owns the rights to the author’s works, assured that they would maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text. 

“Any changes made have been small and carefully considered,” they added.

I will first admit that I thought some changes bordered on the preposterous.

For instance, in the book “Fantastic Mr Fox”, a description of tractors saying that “the machines were both black” has been cut. 

Apparently the updated books no longer contain the words black and white to describe all machines, animals and humans. 

But there were some changes I liked. 

The Witches, whose titular characters are seemingly ordinary women who can be identified by their lack of hair under their wigs, now include a matter-of-fact line that says: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that." I appreciated the brutal, yet kind honesty of this new line.

Also, I am pleased by the 21st century update of women’s occupations in the same book.

Instead of “working in supermarkets” and “typing letters for businessmen”, they are now either top scientists or “running a business”.
A more controversial cut was the removal of almost any mention of the words “fat” and “ugly”. 

For instance, the character Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now described as “enormous”, instead of “enormously fat”. And in The Twits, Mrs Twit — the female half of the spiteful couple that plays pranks on each other — is simply “beastly” instead of “ugly and beastly”.

I have definitely used such mean words on others as a kid, which I might or might not have picked up from the books I read.

Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, a group dedicated to literature and human rights, argues against the edits and thinks they run the risk of ‘’clouding the essential lens that literature offers on society.” 

To me, parental guidance and discretion are necessary when exposing a child to any new content. 


For now, it seems like the backlash has worked and the publisher has backtracked — the original texts will still be published and sold, so people can make their own decision on which copy to pick up.

Still, this news can feel like an attack on freedom of expression, considering the slew of book bans driven by political and social movements around the globe.

Among the most frequent targets in the US are books about race, gender and sexuality: George M Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue”, Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy”, Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”. 

In Tanzania, popular children’s book series Diary of a Wimpy Kid was recently banned following accusations of “contradicting cultural norms and morals”. 

So it is to no surprise that Puffin’s announcement was notably slammed by prominent author Salman Rushdie who called it “absurd censorship’’ by the “bowdlerising sensitivity police”. 

Concerns of censorship are definitely legitimate, but these changes to Dahl’s books have been aimed at promoting diversity and inclusivity, rather than oppressing ideas. 

If I had to be cynical, I would argue that these changes were probably made to ensure Dahl’s works — an extremely profitable money making vehicle — will be palatable to future audiences. 

According to Forbes, Dahl was the highest earning dead celebrity in 2021 with earnings of US$513million (S$691million), beating Prince and Michael Jackson who topped the list for eight years before that.


Also notable is how some of the loudest complaints are coming from those who worry that the ‘’woke’’ crowd is taking the concept of inclusivity too far for comfort. 

British figures like Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Queen Consort Camilla have also expressed their disapproval of the rewrites, portraying the publisher’s move as an attack on free speech and creativity. 

For some, it can be disorienting and confusing when a word or phrase could suddenly be considered politically incorrect. I think as a society, we can afford to give people more grace when they slip up with such gaffes. 

But it is inevitable that as we move towards a more progressive and culturally-aware society, language will need to transform too. 

Refusing to evolve in the name of freedom of expression is quite “redunculous”, a word employed by Dahl.

There is now growing awareness that some of our most beloved children’s literature may contain questionable content. 

In 2021, six Doctor Seuss books ceased publication because they contained racist and insensitive imagery. 

This is also not the first time Dahl’s books have been rewritten. In the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory published in 1964, the Oompa-Loompas were black pygmies imported from “the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle” and enslaved in Willy Wonka’s factory. 

In the 1970s, Dahl, who claimed he had not realised his depictions were racist, gave in to public pressure and revised the Oompa-Loompas into “small fantasy creatures’’. 

Of course, this all happened many years before I was born, and it was not until later in life that I learned about Dahl’s original narrative.

Part of growing up is realising that your favourite childhood authors are flawed characters.

This effort to rework Dahl’s content that is deemed offensive by today’s standards is a signal of our resolve to be kinder and more thoughtful adults that wish to encourage younger “human beans” to be the same.

After all, JK Rowling, Enid Blyton, and Roald Dahl have been accused of transphobia, sexism and antisemitism respectively. 

Their views might not necessarily be reflected in their stories, but this would likely be at the back of some people’s minds.

I reread Dahl’s children's books again as an adult and I’m still amused by their dark humour and witty puns. 

When I first encountered them as a child, I did not notice some of the insidious stereotypes, but I know better now, as an adult, how some words can cross the line. 

Dahl, who died in 1990, would probably scoff at how his publishers are “gobblefunking” with his words if he were still alive. 

But he was also a strong believer in the magic of books and their power to captivate young readers. This update is a necessary compromise so that his stories will live on for a long time.


Linette Heng, 33, is a freelance writer.

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Roald Dahl inclusivity literature

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