Fairy tales and all that filth

Is updating children’s literature censorship or sensible? asks Sally Feldman

May 21, 2015

Ophelia dies of accidental drowning. One of the three musketeers converts to Islam. Little Black Sambo is white. And there’ll be no more lashings of ginger beer for the Famous Five.

These are just a few examples of the myriad changes that have been made over the centuries to some of our best-known stories. Ophelia’s suicide came a cropper 200 years ago in Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare – along with Lady Macbeth’s damned spot and the entire character of the prostitute Doll Tearsheet in Henry IV, Part 2. And Bowdler’s name has since become synonymous with the practice of “cleansing” literature to make it more palatable for children.

So is this a philistine travesty of great writing or a perfectly acceptable strategy of updating for modern readers? That was the subject of last month’s conference, Outlawed: The Naked Truth about Censored Literature for Young People, at California State University, Fresno.

And, says children’s book expert Nicholas Tucker, it is not surprising that the conference took place in the US, where there seems to be a habitual hysteria about the supposed harmful effects of even the most innocent stories. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, for example, is banned in some US libraries for being too depressing, and Maurice Sendak’s classic In the Night Kitchen for featuring nudity.

Publishers regard these changes as perfectly sensible. Why not alter terms or language that would be offensive to today’s sensibilities?

Schools and libraries in the US have enormous power over what is deemed appropriate reading for children. And that power is influenced by a vociferous evangelical lobby that looks for – and finds – evil everywhere. Even Harry Potter and The Twilight Zone have been condemned for advocating magic and sorcery.

In the UK, Tucker maintains, there’s far less concern about these dangers. But we’re not immune to them. Enid Blyton came under attack in the 1960s when some libraries refused to stock her books, claiming that they were racist and sexist. She’s still as popular as ever. But her publishers, Hodder Children’s Books, recently announced a wholesale revision of her entire list.

Meanwhile, Oxford University Press has had to go to great lengths to correct the announcement that their children’s authors had been advised not to feature pigs in their work, for fear of upsetting Muslim and Jewish readers. They were simply, they protested, asking writers to be sensitive about other cultures.

This was greeted with derision, and the Jewish Board of Deputies issued a statement saying that while Jews must not eat pigs, it was OK to read about them. But it wasn’t such a joke in Turkey, where Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh has been banned because of Piglet.

Indeed, when not banning films, Turkish state censors have no qualms about “improving” small details in the canon. In their versions of the stories it’s not only D’Artagnan who converts to Islam but also Pinocchio, Tom Sawyer and the Swiss orphan girl Heidi.

And in most cultures, traditional fairy tales have been subjected to polite rewrites. Pantomime stalwarts Aladdin and Sinbad, created for Victorian audiences, bear no relation to their lusty forebears in the real Arabian Nights – intended not for children but for the occupants of the Sultans’ harems. Across Europe, the earthy and gruesome Grimms’ Fairy Tales have been cleansed into more palatable fare, while the great thinker Rousseau believed that children shouldn’t be exposed to fairy tales at all.

Some of the most virulent attacks are about racism. The Indian features of Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo have systematically been whitened, as have those of the African characters in Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle stories.

But some accusations of racism are rather more far-fetched. Tucker is infuriated by the banning of the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep in some kindergartens because of the – completely untrue – claim that the word “black” is derogatory. He suspects that people seize on such myths because our childhood reading is so sacrosanct – a passion reflected in the new edition of Antonia Fraser’s The Pleasure of Reading, in which writers extol their favourite children’s stories and the pleasures of being not just enchanted and amused but shocked and even terrified as well.

So any tampering with such hallowed memories is bound to provoke outrage. But publishers regard these changes as perfectly sensible. Why not alter terms or language that would be offensive to today’s sensibilities? Especially as the authors in question would have been horrified to know that they had offended their young readers. In the original version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, Quentin Blake portrayed the slavish Oompa-Loompas as black African. But after accusations of racism, he and Roald Dahl agreed to turn them into white imps instead.

Not that Dahl is completely off the hook. Just last year the supermarket chain Aldi removed his Revolting Rhymes from its shelves in Australia, after complaints that one of the verses contained the word “slut”.

And rude words, it seems, continue to attract disgust. So much so that there now exists the Clean Reader app for e-readers, which automatically removes offensive language. Imagine Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Trainspotting without the graphic language.

Such messing with adult literature is censorship. But the changes publishers routinely make to children’s books are mostly just benevolent attempts to avoid offending contemporary readers.

Not that children are necessarily overly influenced by the stereotypes in the original versions. Most girls in my class identified with tomboy George from the Famous Five rather than drippy Anne. My own alter ego was Just William. And my best friend Jenni Murray’s childhood role model? Squadron Leader Bigglesworth.

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