To tinker with an icon’s prose
I was ten when the Big Friendly Giant sauntered into my life, along with James Henry Trotter, Charlie Bucket, Matilda Wormwood, and Danny, the champion of the world. I do not remember the order in which they arrived, but I do remember where I was when they did: Mr. Dickey’s grade 5 classroom.
Hardly precocious, I had long struggled with reading. As much as the world of books fascinated me from the outside, I couldn’t seem to enter it, no matter how much or how often I tried. Discouraged, I would retreat into other imaginative realms: the creek bed where I hunted for fossils and pretended to be Indiana Jones, the abandoned farmhouses and storm cellars I probably shouldn’t have been exploring, the castles and pirate ships I built out of Lego.
By grade 5, I could make my way through such books as Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children, though no one would have considered me a competent or motivated reader. I was, however, a child who loved listening to others read aloud — which is what Mr. Dickey would do most days after recess. Decades have passed, and I can still hear him narrating for my classmates and me Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious. I can still catch his voice breaking just a bit at the end of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. And I can still recall descriptions of a giant peach flying over the sea: “Come right up close to me and I will show you something wonderful.”
Hearing him read all of those words — those words of Roald Dahl, especially — inspired me to experience them on the page. Because the closest bookstore was well over an hour away, I started to build my own small library by filling out Scholastic Book Club order forms and waiting for my selections to arrive two or three weeks later. I began tackling Fantastic Mr. Fox, Esio Trot, George’s Marvellous Medicine, and all the other Dahl titles that Mr. Dickey didn’t have time to share with us. I became, at last, a reader myself.
I went on to study literature in university and graduate school, and I came to understand that however transformative his body of work, Dahl the man wasn’t exactly a role model for grade 5 students. Tall and seductive, the British fighter pilot turned intelligence officer turned children’s author was also known for his racism, misogyny, and antisemitism. He was, as the cover of the London Review of Books lately declared, a rather “dreadful” individual.
And so it has been with some ambivalence that I’ve followed the controversy surrounding Puffin Books and its decision to scrub hundreds of “offensive” words and phrases from forthcoming editions of Dahl’s stories in the United Kingdom. As the Telegraph reported in mid-February, women would no longer be described as “fat and jolly” or as “mad” in The Witches; the “ladies and gentlemen” of The Twits would henceforth be addressed as “folks”; Matilda would forgo her trip “on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad” and instead visit “nineteenth century estates with Jane Austen.”
The reaction was swift, with the likes of PEN America, Salman Rushdie, and the British prime minister all crying foul. Even the Queen Consort seemed to speak up, telling writers gathered at Clarence House, “Please remain true to your calling, unimpeded by those who may wish to curb the freedom of your expression or impose limits on your imagination. Enough said.”
I breathed a sigh of relief when, bowing to pressure, Puffin announced it would also publish a set of unaltered Dahl books. But we were never in any real danger of losing the original texts to so-called sensitivity readers: tens of millions of copies are already in circulation. And though the edits would have infuriated Dahl himself, his estate sold his catalogue to Netflix in 2021 — and with it the power to authorize such rewrites. (Similar changes are afoot for a reissued batch of James Bond thrillers coming out this month, though Ian Fleming once gave his editor permission to tone down the raciest parts of 007’s life.)
Yes, most of Puffin’s emendations make my eyes roll, but none of this strikes me as yet another front of the culture wars. Publishers have blue-pencilled children’s books for years, for all sorts of reasons; the version of The Call of the Wild that I had as a boy wasn’t exactly a carbon copy of Jack London’s original.
I’m less concerned whether today’s students read “Oh do shut up, you old hag” or “Oh do shut up, you old crow” and more concerned that they encounter work that can unlock for them the world of books. I also know the Dahl that I first experienced in Mr. Dickey’s classroom was sometimes edited on the fly. “Sure, I skipped or substituted words,” my former teacher told me when I asked him about all this. “He used ‘ass’ a lot, for example, so I’d say ‘donkey’ instead. (I always explained what I was doing.)” The overall effect was no less wonderful.