Two of my favorite authors, Margaret Atwood and Roald Dahl have lately been under siege. I don’t know what’s worse, banning books or rewriting them.
In Virginia, parents and politicians have been debating what should be taught in their public schools and which books should be read. Recently, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been removed from the shelves of the High School public libraries in Madison County.
Madison County is less than a 2 ½ hour drive from my house in Annapolis, Maryland. Pretty scary. Adapted into a highly regarded and watched series on Hulu, the school board claims the novel, is slanted against Christianity. In her essay published this month ( February 2023) in The Atlantic, Atwood says, “Wittingly or otherwise, the Madison County school board has now become part of the centuries-old wrangling over who shall have control of religious texts and authority over what they mean.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is in good company. Among the twenty-two other titles pulled off the library shelves is Toni Morrison’s , The Bluest Eye and Snow Falling on Cedars by David Gutterson, two novels on my “favorites” list. This is not the first time many of these fine novels have been banned. But the state of Texas with a whopping 713 banned books is a good distance away, so book banning hadn’t been as actively on my mind.
What I didn’t realize is that nearby Pennsylvania has banned 456 books and Florida comes in third, with 204 banned books. I learned these statistics by reading an article by Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech published in the newsletter The Hill. Posted in April 2022, based on information gleaned from a just released PEN America report, the number of books banned from the shelves of public libraries is alarming. That was almost one year ago and unfortunately, I think with the growing movement towards censoring what young people read, most likely the number has grown.
Banning books is one thing, but what about rewriting books? This is what is happening with some editions of the Roald Dahl books under the guise of making them more appropriately sensitive to be understood by children. According to The New York Times, Dahl’s children’s classics “have been rewritten in an effort to make them less offensive and more inclusive, according to a representative from the author’s estate.”
According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, hundreds of words, including descriptions of characters’ appearances, races and genders, had been changed or removed in at least 10 of the author’s 19 children’s books, published by Puffin Books.
From everything I’ve read about him, Roald Dahl was not a nice man. He was overtly anti-Semitic, and since Judaism is my heritage, that alone should give me reason to dislike him, but he was an excellent writer. Childish in some respects, by his own accounts he had a miserable childhood, he has a dry wit and humor that make his stories unique.
Initially he wrote for adults and one of my all time favorites, maybe because I once was an antiques dealer, is his short story “The Parson’s Pleasure.” When it comes to depicting greed and selfishness, Dahl nails it. Included in the story collection, Kiss, Kiss, you can read it here.
Do children need to have their stories sanitized? I think not, but at least with all the public outcry, the original versions, under the Penguin label, will still be published.
But if school boards decide they only want to put the sanitized versions of Dahl books on the shelves of libraries, we have another censorship issue.
Who gets to decide what our children read and what we read?
Writers, like all human beings have flaws. They are imperfect. Should we decide not to like a piece of art because we don’t like the artist? We can certainly reject art that speaks to us in negative ways, but that’s a personal conversation between ourselves and the art.
Everyone should have the freedom to choose what they want to read. Banning and censoring books takes that right away.
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