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Cancel or revise? Rethinking problematic children’s stories

With many much-loved children’s stories being rewritten and banned lately due to problematic themes, should you be ‘cancelling’ and boycotting everything from Cinderella to Twilight?

While the practice of revisiting and rethinking older stories isn’t new, more and more classic stories are coming under fire when revisited with modern perspectives. In early 2023 publisher Puffin edited Roald Dahl classics including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and The Twits to remove offensive language on the advice of sensitivity readers. Two years prior, Dr Seuss Enterprises made headlines when it announced it would cease publication of six of the famous author’s books because they ‘portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong’. Meanwhile, Disney’s recent remake of The Little Mermaid film, which includes various changes to instil diverse representation, has attracted an array of criticism.

It can be confronting to realise the problematic themes in stories you loved as a child. If you’ve been holding onto old books, films or merchandise, should you burn them all now and avoid passing these down to your children when the time comes?

Not so fast, argues children’s literature expert Dr Paul Venzo, a senior lecturer in writing and literature at Deakin. He says engaging critically with older stories can be a way to explore and improve the problems of our society.

‘In some cases, it might be possible, and appropriate, to update certain words or phrases in older books,’ he says. ‘At the same time, keeping original copies in special library collections means that scholars, with the skills and training to study this kind of literature, can use them to examine how ideologies for and about children and childhood change over time.’

Are rewrites a good idea?

The idea of a publishing houses rewriting stories under the name of authors who have long passed away doesn’t sit well with some people.

However, Dr Venzo is comfortable with minor changes being made to old works in order to keep up with the times. He points out that books have always had editors, with the author just one of many people responsible for producing the final version of a book.

‘It’s a balancing act,’ Dr Venzo says. ‘Minor changes may be OK in certain circumstances, but we should also be prepared to debate the pros and cons of amendments or updates in a civilised, thoughtful manner.’

As cultural understandings evolve, many artists revisit their own work through a new lens and want to make changes. Roald Dahl himself changed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the 1970s to soften the racial connotations of the Oompa-Loompas, but as American scholar Philip Nel has pointed out, this doesn’t change the central narrative around a distinctive race of people constrained to a life of slave-like factory work.

Should we be shifting our focus instead?

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, was recently quoted saying rather than rewriting and re-releasing Roald Dahl’s books, it would be better to ‘let them go out of print’ and shift readers’ focus to other writers’ work.

While in some cases this might be a fair approach, in others we might be wise to first determine why a classic has been deemed problematic, argues Dr Venzo.

‘For example, I’m currently researching a classic Italian children’s picture book from 1959 that has been the subject of censorship, perhaps due to its promotion of multiculturalism. Despite some people wishing to ban this book, I would argue it is an excellent example of how to communicate to children about diversity.’

Across time, award-winning children’s literature tends to feature white, male, protagonists. However, books that feature intersectional and diverse characters and experience are slowly becoming more prevalent, Dr Venzo says.

‘For example, in our picture book called The Great Southern Reef, my co-author and I gave the child characters gender-neutral names (Frankie and Sam) and removed gendered pronouns when referring to them. At the same time, our main character, Professor Seaweed, demonstrates the leading contribution to marine science made by women.’

Research conducted by Dr Venzo and colleagues at Deakin on picture books for rainbow families shows that over the past few decades, an increasing number of books have been published that feature diversity within families.

‘In that case, children’s literature reflects how certain aspects of society continue to change,’ he says.

How should we engage with older stories?

If you’re thinking of sharing some old favourite stories with the children in your life, how can you treat the problematic versions with caution?

‘Adults are often the curators of what children read and learn, so it’s important that we make educated decisions about what we encourage young people to read, and at what stage of life,’ Dr Venzo says.

‘If appropriate, see if there is scope to open discussion and critical reflection. We sometimes assume that kids don’t see or understand certain things – but they might surprise us!’

That’s why explaining the issues of the world to children in an age-appropriate but honest way tends to be better than avoiding uncomfortable or awkward topics. Recent research on race, for example, suggests differences are understood on some level by children from an extremely young age.

‘My experience doing workshops with kids is that they are often aware of social issues and want to talk about them. Climate change is an obvious example, but I’ve worked with kids who are attuned to representations of race, too,’ Dr Venzo says.

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Dr Paul Venzo
Dr Paul Venzo

Senior Lecturer,

Faculty of Arts and Education,

Deakin University

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