Salman Rushdie Calls Revisions to Roald Dahl Books ‘Absurd Censorship’

Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken
“James and the Giant Peach” is among the Roald Dahl books that have been modified.

LONDON – A decision to change hundreds of words in Roald Dahl’s children’s books has drawn condemnation from author Salman Rushdie, who called it “absurd censorship.”

His is the latest prominent voice in the heated debate sparked after a report Friday in Britain’s Telegraph detailed a litany of changes by Dahl’s publisher and the Roald Dahl Story Co., which manages the works’ copyright and trademarks, that were designed to make the famous books more inclusive and accessible for today’s readers.

“Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship,” Rushdie, a Booker Prize-winning author, wrote on Twitter, calling out the children’s imprint of the British publisher Penguin Books. “Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

Rushdie is one of the most famous authors in the world. His book “The Satanic Verses” prompted Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 to issue a religious decree calling for Muslim’s anywhere in the world to assassinate Rushdie and anyone else involved in the publication of the book.

In August, Rushdie was stabbed multiple times by an assailant at an event in Chautauqua, N.Y. He survived, and his latest novel was published this month.

The changes in Dahl’s children’s books were done in partnership with Inclusive Minds, a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity and accessibility in children’s literature, according to the Roald Dahl Story Co.

Among the changes, according to the Telegraph: The character of Augustus Gloop from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is no longer described as “fat.” Now he is referred to as “enormous.” What was described as a “weird African language” in the book “The Twits” is no longer weird. In “The BFG,” a reference to the character of the “Bloodbottler” having skin that was “reddish-brown” has been removed.

Some characters are now gender-neutral. The singing and dancing Oompa Loompas from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were once described as “small men”; now they are “small people.” In “James and the Giant Peach,” the Cloud-Men – mysterious figures who live in the sky – are now known as Cloud-People.

In some cases, new lines were added. In “The Witches,” a paragraph that explains that the witches are bald underneath their wigs has a new sentence: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

The Roald Dahl Story Co. said in an emailed statement Sunday that the review of Dahl’s writing began in 2020 – before the works were acquired by streaming giant Netflix – and that tweaks were “small and carefully considered.”

The company said that it wanted “to ensure that Roald Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today” and that the review was standard process. “When publishing new print runs of books written years ago, it’s not unusual to review the language used alongside updating other details including a book’s cover and page layout,” the statement said.

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America, said the organization, a nonprofit that works to defend and celebrate free expression through the advancement of literature and human rights, was “alarmed at news” of the changes to Dahl’s works, calling the move “a purported effort to scrub the books of that which might offend someone.” On Twitter, Nossel wrote that “literature is meant to be surprising and provocative” and that efforts to erase words that might cause offense only “dilute the power of storytelling.”

“If we start down the path of trying to correct for perceived slights instead of allowing readers to receive and react to books as written, we risk distorting the work of great authors and clouding the essential lens that literature offers on society,” she said.

Nossel suggested that instead of revising literature and “playing around” with text, publishers and editors could perhaps offer “introductory context that prepares people for what they are about to read, and helps them understand the setting in which it was written.”

Others on social media warned of a dangerous precedent. “You edit a couple of books with outdated attitudes, now there’s only 400 years of literature left to go,” one user tweeted. “Where do you draw the line here?”

Critics say that Dahl’s books are bigoted, racist, sexist and larded with gratuitous violence. And some writers say the reaction to the latest changes is overblown.

“It’s good to evolve with the times,” tweeted Ashley Esqueda, a writer and pop culture expert, adding: “Very tired of people demanding we remain locked into their childhoods.”

One social media user said they were “quite happy to have more inclusive versions to read to my little one. I’ve been horrified at the content of some of the things I read as a child, having revisited them as an adult.”

Although Dahl’s writing is globally famous – with at least 300 million books sold in 58 languages, according to the British journal Bookseller – Dahl himself is a polarizing figure who left a complicated legacy. In 1990, months before his death, he called himself antisemitic after years of hostile public comments about Jewish people in interviews.

In 2020, Dahl’s family issued an apology for the writer’s antisemitic, “prejudiced remarks,” calling some of his language “incomprehensible.” Relatives said Dahl’s offensive comments stood in “marked contrast to the man we knew.”