The debate will no doubt continue as will, in all likelihood, the practice of revising classic books although after the fierce debate over the Dahl changes, Puffin announced that the works would also be reissued in their uncensored form so readers could choose which version they preferred. Kantor suggests one alternative way forward. “Reissues of backlist titles also sometimes have added introductions, as an alternative to revisions,” she says. “I think introductions are a great (and minimally invasive) tool for adding context to older texts – not necessarily for young readers, but for the teachers, librarians, parents and guardians who are putting books into kids’ hands or reading aloud with them. In addition to providing a deeper understanding of the book and the time in which it was written, these kinds of intros can open up valuable discussions without changing the author’s words.”
It is perhaps worth remembering that it is not just children’s literature that is subject to these sorts of revisions. Both Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming have recently had offensive references removed. Nor is it a new practice. Charles Dickens was so stung by the hurt reproaches of a Jewish reader over his depiction of the villainous Fagin that he halted a reprinting of Oliver Twist mid-run and removed many of the references to Fagin as “the Jew”. The kindly Jewish character of Mr Riah in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s last completed novel, seems to have been intended as an atonement.
And, of course, the very word “bowdlerisation”, bandied around so much recently, originated with over-zealous 19th Century sensitivity reader Thomas Bowdler rewriting Shakespeare to remove, among other things, sexual innuendo. If the Bard can be rewritten, so can anyone.
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