To Change or Not to Change, That is the Question

Recently I did a brief post noting a Guardian article about a situation in Germany involving what to do about an older, but still beloved children’s book with some language that is very problematic today.  I wasn’t surprised because I had noticed such imagery and language before in my childhood German books and also because this is a difficult situation that is happening in many countries, not just Germany.  Now Judith Ridge has written an incredibly thoughtful post related to this, “Censor or suck it up? Racism and children’s books.” As she and many in the comments note, it is a dilemma. On the one hand you don’t want children being hurt, but on the other hand it is uncomfortable to start changing books for this when the author is no longer around to give his or her okay to the process.

A few years ago there was quite a todo when someone brought out a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with “the pejorative racial labels” removed.  I have to admit that didn’t sit well with me and I concluded in  “The Problem with Protection” that  “History ain’t pretty, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be known.” But then that was a book that most young people encounter in a classroom with a teacher to guide them through it.  The situation is more complicated with books that children read on their own.

Say with Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle. I  loved the book as a child, back in the early 19060s when the adults around me weren’t as on top of this sort of stuff as we are today. And so I was oblivious to the book’s completely problematic plot thread involving the Doctor and his animal friends tricking an African prince who loves classical European fairy tales into thinking he has turned white. Yep,  you read that right.  Just check out Chapters 11 and 12.  And so, some years ago, an edition came out in which “Patricia and Fredrick McKissack gently revised for modern sensibilities a few small portions of the story so as to preserve and emphasize Lofting’s message of universal caring and understanding.”  Because I’m sadly, very uncomfortable with the original and the change, I think the only solution is for the book to be one for those interested in the history of children’s books, not children today.



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15 responses to “To Change or Not to Change, That is the Question

  1. Monica… take a look at the NY Times story about older books being digitized. Below is an excerpt. Relating it to children’s lit and your post, the publisher will probably digitize Lofting’s book rather than the McKissack’s. Kids using e-books, then, will read Lofting’s because they’ll have access to it.


    “If you are taking a piece of iconic journalism and reissuing it, it is probably in the interest of the reader of today to place it into a context that makes sense,” said Peter Osnos, the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books, which handles numerous works by journalists. “That doesn’t change the value of the literature.”

    In this electronic era publishers are increasingly reaching into their backlists to exploit popular nonfiction from the past. In this case Mr. Johnson said that reissuing works in digital form was a mostly automatic effort. For the most part people in the industry agree that there is not a high burden on a publisher to update books based on new evidence about old events, or even to acknowledge that new facts or interpretations exist.


  2. Debbie, the original Dr. Dolittle is already available; I provided the links in the post.


  3. This reminds me of the other day when I was watching Little Women (the 90’s one with Winona Ryder), and they started talking about “black people.” It was jarring. Not exactly the kind of textual bowdlerization you’re talking about, but a total misrepresentation of an era.


  4. Just saw this New Yorker piece which mentions that the author of the German book is still alive and is in favor of the change. In that case, I don’t see the big fuss. That is, change it as the author wishes and that is an end of the matter.


  5. Rebecca Stead

    This is such a difficult thing – you could argue that it’s a violation of an author’s intent to publish the work unchanged, because its effect on readers will have changed without the author’s “permission.” I thought about this a lot while revising Liar & Spy – originally, much of the story’s bullying involved the word “gay,” and attitudes (hurtful ones) about what it means to be gay. I wrote it that way because I believe that damaging anti-gay language and attitudes are an active struggle in many middle schools. But after a lot of thought (and discussion, thank you dear friends), I took it all out – not because I believe it isn’t happening now, but in part (this is a longer conversation) because I have the HOPE that it will not reflect kids’ experience a few years down the line. In which case the impact of the book would have been greatly changed in ways I never intended and might hate. (Would my original version have served as a possibly-interesting reflection of our time? Yes. But I’m equally interested in how it affects the people for whom I wrote it.)


    • I’ve been thinking about this and share your hope that this painful use of the word will go away. And if that is the case and you had left it in, readers in the future might well have then been confused and uncomfortable with something not within their experience. What a complicated thing to have to consider during your writing process. Wow.


  6. Rebecca,

    Does the revised edition have a note somewhere in the book that explains the changes?


    • Rebecca Stead

      Hi Debbie – the changes were all pre-publication. (I was just sharing my looking-forward process in the midst of this looking back. . . )


  7. You know, I had an experience a couple years ago, taking my kids to a children’s theater production of Huck Finn. We had gotten the tickets for free, and I knew that the playwright had opted to sanitize the language (swapping the n-word for the word “slave”). I bristled at this a bit (because I am a book-purist) and wouldn’t have gone had the kids not been so excited about it (the tickets were won in some kind of school thing. I can’t really remember now.)

    Anyway, the production was remarkable – poignant and tender and hilarious – but most importantly, it really called the audience to task. It *required* the audience to take a stand on fairness and justice and on Jim’s inalienable right to be honored as a human being. The tricky language, in this case, would have detracted and distracted from the central message of the play. So I dug it.

    Now, one of the reasons why it worked is that, in the program, they explained that there were changes, and why those changes were made, and what that language meant at the time, and why people said such ugly things. I can see a sanitized version of a kids book working IF they use the fact of its sanitization as a teaching tool – as well as making it clear that, yes, there is another version and, yes, you should probably read it too. You know?


  8. Always a tricky issue to grapple with. In case anyone is interested (and, if not, then skip it, of course), I considered this question in “Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?”:

    My own admittedly imperfect solution is to read troubling texts with young people and then talk with them about what they learn, and how to read it critically. As I say, it’s an imperfect solution, in no small measure because it places an additional burden on the group who is being stereotyped. And yet, innocence is a negative state; it can’t be sustained. Better to help children cope with a world that can be cruel and indifferent toward them… than simply to leave them to cope with it on their own.


  9. And I gotta say that even though you want to help children cope with what’s out there, it seems kind of callous for a teacher to add to the burden of a Native child by reading a book with Native stereotypes in it. As you note, there’s crap outside the classroom door. It’d be nice for me (as a Native mother) to hope that my child would have the same treatment as white children whose identity isn’t assaulted by the books they’re being read. That stuff must be taught, but I don’t think reading a stereotypical book from cover to cover is the way to do it.


  10. Debbie and Sarah: Right. As I said above, “it places an additional burden on the group who is being stereotyped.” (And the blog post goes into greater nuance than I managed in these comments.) Five Chinese Brothers, Little Black Sambo even Babar — not a great choice for young readers for precisely the above reason.


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