on Author intent and sanitizing history

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From NZ Herald: “Classic children’s books by author Roald Dahl have been partly rewritten to remove language now deemed too offensive. References to people being “fat” and “ugly” have been removed from much-loved works including Matilda, The BFG and James and the Giant Peach. The Oompa Loompas from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are also now gender-neutral. “

I have mixed feelings about this one as a huge fan of Matilda and the imagery generated by James and the Giant Peach. Is it right to go back and change the authors’s first language choices? I get when books are translated that there are multiple interpretations that can be had, but original author intent matters.

And there’s been recent controversy around Roald Dahl’s anti-semitism that was exposed late in life. Related discovery saw some of childhood legend Dr. Seuss’s titles discontinued.

So it feels like sanitizing those texts is fueled by commercial interests over accurate representation of art and children’s entertainment. Which is nothing new. A number of now seemingly-defunct companies were editing films down from to R to family friendly ratings for years because there was a profitable market to cater to. Expensive Hollywood lawsuits argued on behalf of artist intent and against unapproved edits to aftermarket cuts of films

So, why are books held to a different standard?

Are children’s books fair game because we’re trying to shield them from the realities of historical oppression and discrimination that is so deeply woven into culture? Kids aren’t born racist or sexist; those are learned attitudes. Seems the Dahl classics could be pair with discussions about bullying and appropriate descriptors of one’s looks.

Am I overthinking it? Should we be focused on trying to instill the wonder of reading in kids with whatever material they gravitate toward?

At what age are they ready to be exposed to content in its original context? Given the book banning of late in school across the country, do we need worry about the protecting the original intent in tomes by Margaret Atwood or Toni Morrison being next up for editing?

Are patriarchal Western elders just flailing at a last ditch effort to whitewash parts of literary history that are uncomfortable given current awareness of how certain language lands? Or was Orwell’s 1984 more prescient than fiction?

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Andrea Zak
By Andrea Zak

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