The Absurd Infantilisation of Children’s Literature

I’m a little late to the party, but I feel the need to talk about the Dahl debacle. In case you somehow missed it, Puffin in its infinite wisdom decided to rewrite Dahl books to “suit modern sensibilities”. Now I’m sure you’ve already seen articles explaining why “enormous” is not exactly kinder than “enormously fat”. And I’m sure we can have a discussion about how the term “female” is not exactly offensive enough to be written out of literature thank-you-very-much. Yet what is really striking about this whole Orwellian incident is how common this is becoming.

You see, this is far from the first time so-called sensitivity readers have put old books on the butcher’s block. Stine, Blyton, Fleming are just a few victims of this latest scheme. Heck- even What’s the Time Mr Wolf isn’t safe with a recent saccharine version ending the story with “it’s party time!” instead of the classic “it’s dinner time!” (spoiler alert 😉).

What I find most bizarre is the context of this decision. While children’s literature has invited its fair share of darkness in recent years, a band of do-gooders are ready with the finger-wagging over the wrong sort of books. Many of those who (rightly) argued against censorship of books like Maus are not nearly so eager to defend Dahl. Never mind that the impulse to censor comes from much the same instinct- books are a battleground for political games and the casualties keep mounting up on both sides.

All of this goes beyond spoiling the fun of a few “transgressive and naughty” children’s books. Sanitising what we read does nothing to provide actual safety in a world full of disaster, danger and chaos. Unfortunately, society has not become “kindly and nice” today as a writer musing over this mess will have you believe. Education may be obsessed with kindness- yet that has not been borne out in our treatment of each other. Reality is much as it has always been; life is still suffering. We will always need the stories that help us navigate hardships, depression and despair- maybe now more than ever.

And not to go over old ground, but reading is still the safest way to do that. Children (and indeed adults) are perfectly capable of choosing what they feel happiest reading. Our job is to listen to that- not dictate. Devising a one-size-fits-all attitude will not help anyone- especially not those looking to be challenged. Indeed, in the words of Naomi Wood, some children will find it helpful when stories “defy the words of comfort with which parents, teachers and children’s books try to block out the terrors of childhood”. What works for one child, will not work for another, so we cannot simply blanket ban books for all children.

Clearly, it goes without saying that I stand unequivocally behind Dahl and the preservation of his work. As I have said about Dahl before in my post on separating the art from the artist, a residual anger at people who are long dead will get us nowhere. Children’s tales have traditionally doled out plenty of warnings- so perhaps here is a warning for us all. Censorship is a dangerous path that never leads to a land of rainbows and unicorns and bunnies. It is the route that every society headed towards totalitarianism takes. So, if your goal in life is to censor those scary-scary children’s books, maybe what we should fear is *you*.


Wood, Naomi. “The Ugly Duckling’s Legacy: Adulteration, Contemporary Fantasy, and the Dark.” Marvels & Tales, 20. 2 (2006): 193-207. Web.

Phew- glad I got that off my chest! But what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my stance? Let me know in the comments!


30 thoughts on “The Absurd Infantilisation of Children’s Literature

  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
    The problem is, all the stupid people who think it’s ok. I guess it’s time for people to start hoarding those books so they can’t be pried out of their hands and “edited for safety” 😦

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Very well put. I don’t mean to sound like a “conspiracy theorist” or ascribe a sinister plot to what is almost certainly, a least in the main, the actions of misguided and over-enthusiastic fanatics. However whenever I see something like this I find it worthwhile to ask “who stands to benefit?”. It strikes me that if I develop in childhood the resistance with which to handle the inevitable shocks of life then when I’m older I’m less likely to turn on the daily news and be so overwhelmed by the cavalcade of horrors that are wheeled out each day that I’m willing to sign over my freedoms lock, stock and barrel to the state in exchange for reassurance and the illusion of safety, nor am I so likely to help keep the economy nice and buoyant with a spot of comforting retail therapy. Or perhaps it is just a case of “get them used to censorship when they’re young and they won’t know the difference when they’re older”? Regardless it all seems damn sinister to me – nobody who starts out censoring books has ever turned out to be the good guys in the end.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I saw this on Twitter recently and thought it was crazy! You might as well re-write every book ever written if that’s the case, right? (which, gosh I hope that it never comes to that) I get that we’re in a time where we’re trying to be better and be more inclusive, but you can’t go back and change history… erase it as if these books never existed, or else how can you show we’ve done better? I feel like we should put more focus on the books being published today than on ones published years ago from a different time.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes it’s crazy! I think the problem is that in the guise of sensitivity people are working themselves into an impossible frenzy over language. I don’t think it would improve modern books if we start erasing the word “female” as was done here for example. I think now would be a good opportunity to take a step back and think about this.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with you completely. I also think that by removing the potentially offensive language, you’re taking away an opportunity to give children context for it. Adults who have problems with such language can discuss it with kids as they read. They can talk about why it might be potentially hurtful and what alternatives could be. Basically by taking it out of the book altogether, people are pretending not to see it, and hoping it goes away. Adults should realize that’s not how things work!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. It seem like kids books are easy targets for censorship because adults tend to view things in complex ways. So lose tough with what makes kids books appealing to kids. Sometimes kids books are just simple and silly.

    I once came across a review for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ranting on about capitalisms and it make no sense what so ever. Adults take the childish things and shove overly complex meaning into to them.


  6. Coming at this issue as both a writer and a teacher – I strongly feel that the authors original work should be left untouched. It reflects a time period and all of societies influences from when it was published. I also feel that reading WITH children is important and with stories that parents feel is not woke enough: maybe they should be engaging their children to read critically and discuss the language. I see this updating of manuscripts, book banning, as another aspect like sending your kid to school, or sitting them in front of the television and dusting your hands of the responsibility. Parents need to be engaging and guiding their children to think critically, question, learn respect, and function in the wider world. Breaching the authors copyright – even though it may not be the legally correct term – because you are altering the authors words and their indented use from the time they were initially published so that it is more palatable with societies views today robs children of the opportunity to start a discussion about something that they may not like. Fairy tales and Fables often have dark origins, as too do Nursery Rhymes. We point there out to children to help them broaden their perception and perspective… why can’t we do this with authors as well?

    This kind of thing just make me feel like people want to passively walk through life and not get the opportunity to learn and form their own opinions. It’s erasing a bit of history. It’s not understanding how things change; not identifying the harmful opinions of the past. Books are windows into other characters, other places. Some of them may be a bit uncomfortable – but isn’t that the whole point.

    This kind of thing opens the door for so many other types of books to be re-written. It could open a dangerous precedent for the erasure of a lot of our past.


  7. I am totally with you. And that even goes beyond sanitizing children litterature. All the recent “witch hunts” we had for that or that author for whatever reason is really irking me! If you don’t agree with a book just avoid reading it! With the exception of someone clearly promoting mass mudrer and such, I think when you write fiction you have a certain liberty. Of course don’t go openly insulting communities but if you made a mistake or if one of your characters is racist and he is the villain of your story, I don’t think you should be burned for that. Sorry I got heated but I am really fed up with cancel culture. I find it ridiculous. Especially at over 50 when I know these are books and not world war…😉


  8. The interesting thing about the backlash here was that the publisher actually pulled back and said, “Oh, well, I guess we will publish both versions.” I have no idea if that will be the case for the Bond novels and now, apparently, Agatha Christie.

    What I found particularly absurd was that the publisher had made a grand statement about how it was their duty to change the language and protect children (or something to that effect; I couldn’t find the tweet when I went looking for it a couple days after), but apparently their moral duty meant nothing to them when after like a week they announced they would be keeping the original books if people were willing to pay for them! I mean, I personally am not a fan of changing an author’s language, but if you, as the publisher, truly believe that doing so is the moral and ethical thing to do, then stand behind that when people start complaining about it! Obviously their “ethics” mean nothing to them compared to profit.

    Also these changes were weird because they ranged from relatively minor (like saying both parents can do housework instead of just the mom) to rewriting entire passages and adding a dedication!


    1. Sort of related, I know people always go for “adults should talk to kids about offensive stuff in books,” but I have to say that my parents never paid attention to anything I read. They certainly wouldn’t be, I guess, reading the book along with me and noting anything about it they felt the need to “discuss.” Maybe some parents do this, but I don’t think it’s common, and I think it’s even less likely a kid is going to walk up to their parent and ask them about one character calling another character “fat” in something they’re reading on their own, so they can “discuss” it with a grown-up.

      I still don’t think you should be changing an author’s words after their death without their permission, but this just seems like a weak explanation for why we don’t need to. In reality, I don’t think parents are going to discuss Dahl with their kids. You just have to raise your kid well IN GENERAL, so they know when a character bullies someone else or judges them for their appearance or whatever that it’s wrong. The teachable moment about this shouldn’t come from reading about it in a book. It should be something a, say, 10 year old, already knows.


  9. Absolutely. As I said, it’s the start of a slippery slope where classic literature is censored, so hang on to your old copies! To be honest, I have not seen anyone actually defending the Dahl rewrites, everyone thinks it’s ridiculous.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Never too late to this party! I agree with you totally that children will have different needs from each book. It’s possible that there’s a child that would appreciate the oddly “sanitised” Dahl version, but in that case, what the publisher should have done is to published those versions with a big “REVISED” sticker and kept the originals clearly marked as such.

    In other words… if the publishers want to make more money by keeping up with the times, that’s really their choice but as a reader I want to have the choice to choose the original versions.


  11. Thank you very much! Goodness gracious all of this literature wash over is getting ridiculous. If we keep on this trend, pretty much every book is going to be rewritten. If anything, use these books as discussion points; that’s what my teachers did. Also … some of the changes seem absurde. Like enormous and enormously fat are still the same thing in my opinion when reading the context of those passages.


  12. “Reality is much as it has always been; life is still suffering.” Spot on.

    Fairy tales, for example. Many of them are cautionary tales, sometimes shading into straight-up horror. I think (?) the reason kids like Dahl is that his writing is horrifying and funny and gross. Take The Witches. It takes seriously the kind of fears kids might have, that adults would say aren’t realistic.

    I’ve loved Agatha Christie for years, but never owned any of her books because they are so widely available. Now that I hear they, too, are being rewritten, I plan to go out and buy up as many vintage copies as I can. Just today I met a middle schooler who had never heard of the Queen of Murder. Guess I will be lending her some!

    Liked by 1 person

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