Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?

When I posted news of my “Censoring Children’s Literature” course last month, several people (well, OK, one person …maybe two) expressed an interest in hearing more about the course.  So, given that Banned Books Week is coming up next week, here’s an update. Having lately been examining two versions of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle (1920, 1988) and three versions of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964, 1973, 1998), we’ve been addressing this question: Do Bowdlerized texts alter the ideological assumptions of the original?  The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)NOTE. Please see my revised, substantially expanded, better inquiry into this subject – Chapter 2 (“How to Read Uncomfortably: Racism, Affect, and Classic Children’s Books”) of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017), pp. 67-106.

One could make a case for “yes, they do alter the ideological assumptions of the original.”  The 1988 edition of Doctor Dolittle removes all references to skin color: “black man” becomes “man,” and “white man” becomes “man” or “foreign man.”  Instead of tricking Prince Bumpo by preying on his desire to be white (in the original), Polynesia tricks Prince Bumpo by hypnotizing him (in the current version).  In the 1973 edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa-Loompas are no longer African Pygmies – they’re from Loompaland.  Illustrator Joseph Schindelman changes their colors from black to white, and current illustrator Quentin Blake keeps them white in his 1998 edition.  Inasmuch as Willy Wonka’s workers are human beings imported from another country, the whitened Oompa-Loompas remove the original book’s implication that a person of European descent had enslaved people of African descent, and that the latter group had gladly accepted their new lot as his slaves.  Similarly, inasmuch the colonialist impulses of Doctor Dolittle are now no longer so explicitly attached to skin color, the 1988 edition diminishes the overt racism of the original edition.  The King of the Jolliginki may still throw childish temper tantrums and Prince Bumpo still may be easily duped, but in the new edition they’re simply color-less victims of Lofting’s satire.

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman, 1964

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman, 1964

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman, 1973

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman, 1973

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Quentin Blake, 1998

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Quentin Blake, 1998

One could also make a case for “no, they do not alter the ideological assumptions of the original,” claiming that the new versions instead more subtly encode the same racial and colonial messages of the original versions.  After all, the Oompa-Loompas still live in “thick jungles infested by the most dangerous beasts in the entire world,” and are still a “tribe” who do not learn English until they come to Britain.  Even though the animals are now nonsensical (“hornswogglers and snozzwangers and those terrible wicked whangdoodles”), it’s not unreasonable for a child to assume that a “tribe” living in “thick jungles” are Africans living in Africa.  And they still happily acquiesce to being shipped to England “in large packing cases with holes in them,” and find life in a factory preferable to life in their native land.  Though I don’t agree with all of Eleanor Cameron’s 1972 critique, the 1973 and 1998 versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory do not fundamentally contradict her concerns about “Willy Wonka’s unfeeling attitude toward the Oompa-Loompas, their role as conveniences and devices to be used for Wonka’s purposes, their being brought over from Africa for enforced servitude, and the fact that their situation is all a part of the fun and games.”

Similarly, while the 1988 edition of Doctor Dolittle makes an effort to make race invisible, it does not make the original book’s colonial ideologies vanish.  Though now from “the Land of the Europeans” instead of “the Land of the White Men,” Doctor Dolittle is an enlightened white European who goes to civilize the natives.  The King of the Jolliginki may now be colorless, but he still lives in a palace “made of mud” in the jungle, and is foolish enough to be duped by a bird (Polynesia).  Both he and his men are prone to childlike tantrums, which (even sans color) invokes the stereotype of Africans as childlike.  And the monkeys still stand in for indigenous people. They are sick because of lack of proper sanitation (flies infect their food supply), and they have no history: “the monkeys had no history books of their own before Doctor Dolittle came to write them for them, they remember everything that happens by telling stories to their children.”  Removing skin color from the text and illustrations does not necessarily remove colonialism.  As New York librarian Isabelle Suhl wrote of the Doctor Dolittle series in 1968, “These attitudes permeate the books … and are reflected in the plots and actions of the stories, in the characterizations of both animals and people as well as in the language that the characters use. Editing out a few racial epithets will not, in my view, make the books less chauvinistic.”

The Story of Doctor Dolittle, frontispiece, illustrated by Hugh Lofting, 1920

frontispiece, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, illustrated by Hugh Lofting, 1920
The Story of Doctor Dolittle, frontispiece, 1988

frontispiece, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, illustrated by Hugh Lofting, 1988

So, then.  What do you do with these books?  If you’re persuaded by the idea that de-colorizing the books also removes ideology, then you can with clear conscience read the new versions to young people and encourage young people to read them.  After all, Dahl himself revised Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and in so doing replaced Africa with the pleasantly nonsensical Loompaland.  And Doctor Dolittle’s kindness towards animals has inspired many advocates of animal rights.  The 1988 edition uses the words of one such person, Jane Goodall, as a blurb on the back of the book: “Any child who is not given the opportunity to make the acquaintance of this rotund, kindly, and enthusiastic doctor/naturalist and all of his animal friends will miss out on something important.”  Along side of any troubling ideas, the Dolittle books contain much that may delight and instruct.

However, if you’re concerned that the books simply dress up racial and colonial ideologies in different costumes, then you face a choice: (1) Discourage children from reading them, (2) Permit children to read only the Bowdlerized versions, (3) Allow children to read any version, original or Bowdlerized.

(1) Discussing revised editions of her own works, Anne Fine asks, “Which is the real version? Who’s to say? The originals are the ones I would save from a fire. I rather hope the newer versions are the ones my readers would take with them to desert islands.”  I think what she means by this is that she hopes people re-read the revised editions, but thinks the originals should be preserved for posterity.  In Should We Burn Babar?, Herbert Kohl uses a similar logic: “I wouldn’t ban or burn Babar, or pull it from libraries.  But buy it?  No.  I see no reason to go out of one’s way to make Babar available to children, primarily because I don’t see much critical reading going on in the schools and children don’t need to be propagandized about colonialism, sexism, or racism.”  So, then, we might relegate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Doctor Dolittle – whether original or revised – to the status of cultural artifact, historically significant but no longer read.

One problem with this approach is that it acts as a kind of covert censorship, a blacklist of sorts.  It says: “oh, no, we’re not banning the book.  We’re just not inviting it.”  So, if you’re of a libertarian mindset, this response will not suffice.

(2) What about allowing children to read only the Bowdlerized versions, then?  That might (in some measure) appease the person of libertarian leanings who nonetheless does not wish to collude in the replication of harmful ideologies.  Yes, it might… if you believe that the Bowdlerized versions do – as Lori Mack, editor of the 1988 version of Doctor Dolittle, said of that volume – “preserve Hugh Lofting’s style and spirit” but without “the offensive caricature.”  However, if you’re a literary purist who believes in granting access to the original work or if you worry that these versions offer only a more subtle, insidious kind of propagandizing, then this approach will fail.

But will it?  Books containing stereotypes (whether re-costumed or not) invite children to participate in that way of thinking, but children do not have to accept the invitation.  They may resist.  If a book’s presentation of people of color does not conform to other images of people of color, then a child may dismiss the book as anomalous.  As an outlier, it perhaps does not unconsciously shape their perceptions.

(3) If you believe in the child’s potential to resist, then you might argue for granting access to the original work on the grounds that the egregiousness of the original’s stereotypes will serve as a kind of “warning flag.”  In other words, one might argue that blunt offensiveness is less harmful than a subtler delivery of prejudices because the reader is more likely to reject the former.  We can read a book and disagree with the book; encountering a book with racist imagery might be more likely to provoke our censure.  Encountering a book in which that imagery has been cleaned up (even while leaving other underlying assumptions intact) might be less likely to provoke our censure.  In sum, we could make the case that unvarnished prejudice serves as a better teaching tool.

One problem of this approach, however, is the disproportional burden it places on members of the stereotyped group.  The white child (for example) who encounters Prince Bumpo or an Oompa-Loompa has the unearned privilege of not seeing people of her or his ethnicity being stereotyped.  The African-American child (for example) does not have that privilege.  This is not to say that prejudice lacks any ill consequences for the dominant group – a white child learning that he or she is more important, more central, can teach that child that dominating children (or adults) of color is acceptable behavior.  Rather, this is to say that prejudice harms different groups in different ways.

What, then, is the solution?  I’d be the first to acknowledge that there is no ideal solution.  One could argue, for instance, that a “colorless” Doctor Dolittle rightly highlights the fact that race is a fiction: black, white, beige, yellow, etc. are pure fantasy.  We’re all members of the human race.  On the other hand, one could counter that claim by noting that while race may be imaginary, people act on racial distinctions as if they were real: denying the social fact of race is a form of lying.

As an educator, I’m inclined to fall back on the (albeit imperfect) solution of reading troubling texts with young people, and talking with them about what they encounter.  As Herb Kohl writes, “It is not developmentally inevitable that children will learn how to evaluate with sensitivity and intelligence what the adult world presents them.  It is our responsibility, as critical and sensitive adults, to nurture the development of this sensibility in our children.”  Further, he notes, critical reading can be a source of both pleasure and power: “children quickly come to understand that critical sensibility strengthens them. It allows them to stand their ground ….  It is a source of pleasure of well – of the joy that comes from feeling that one is living according to conviction and understanding.”

As a negative state, innocence cannot be sustained indefinitely.  As they grow up, children will gain experience and knowledge.  Some of those experiences will hurt; some of that knowledge will make them sad.  If we exclude troubling works from the discussion, then children are more likely to face sadness and pain on their own.  It is, I think, better that we give them the tools with which to face prejudice-bearing literature.  In doing so, we can help them learn to cope with a world that can be neither just nor fair.  With this knowledge, perhaps we may also give them a source of power.


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  2. Reply

    great questions! I don’t have any answers, though I think I come down in the same place you do. I see you’re not teaching Little House on the Prairie, but that’s another one that raises a lot of hackles and yet has not been bowdlerized at all. And, have you seen the recent controversy over Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak? This one, though, seems just patently nuts…so very different from what you’re talking about, though perhaps (?) the most common kind of censorship?

  3. Reply

    Thanks, Libby — I’d caught glances of but hadn’t grasped what was up with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. Have now read her blog post, and Mr. Scroggins’ editorial. I must say that I, too, find it troubling that he found the rape scenes arousing. I found them disturbing, and I suspect that (given his odd response) Mr. Scroggins might benefit from counseling of some sort.

  4. Reply

    Excellent. I have the original Doctor Dolittle from childhood (grandmother was a book collector)and have always been troubled by the reworking even though I understand why it was done. Very much appreciate your unpacking of that title and how the editing didn’t really do the trick in any real way. I’m with you on reading these sorts of titles as they were written with kids rather than trying to “fix” them.

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  7. Reply

    Actually, there was a teeny tiny change made to Little House. I wrote about it here:

    I posted a letter Ursula Nordstrom wrote to a person who wrote to object about (according to the letter) a single word in the book. That word was changed but obviously (to me) the ideology is explicit and implicity on page after page of the series. The change?

    Old: There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no people. Only Indians lived there.

    New: There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.

    The word “people” was changed to “settlers” — as though that helped!

    Nordstrom quoted Wilder as saying her use of “people” was “a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not.”

  8. Reply

    Great article with a valid point, which is the answer to whether or not kids should read “politically correct” sanitized texts as opposed to their originally racially offensive versions is not a clear cut one. I would agree with your solution, which is to read the originals with students while explaining and deconstructing the racist concepts within the work. There is then the question of at what age should children be presented with material and analysis of that sophistication?

    I cannot answer that either. I can say that I wish I had been introduced to postcolonial literature and discourse before taking classes specifically addressing that subject matter in college. Maybe if more students were introduced to these concepts via mainstream literature classes as early as elementary, middle, or high school, they would be more willing and open as adults to looking at books, art, and culture with a critical eye for racism, sexism, classism, etc. Maybe then, more people would accept that these things can, do, and will show up in the unlikeliest of places, and they’d be readily able to identify them for what they truly are.

  9. Reply

    Debbie, that’s a great example of bowdlerizing Little House–it seems exactly like the instances Phil talks about here, where the overtly offensive thing is removed but the ideology behind it remains precisely the same, so the offense is still there. Fascinating.

  10. Reply

    Hey, buddy. I was a little troubled by the language here: “(1) Discourage children from reading them, (2) Permit children to read only the Bowdlerized versions, (3) Allow children to read any version, original or Bowdlerized.”

    Discourage is fine, but I wonder what the ideological effect would be in changing (2) to “Encourage children to read only the Bowdlerized versions” and (3) to “Encourage children to read any version, original or Bowdlerized” (or “Encourage children to read multiple versions”).

    As you can see, it’s the “Permit” and “Allow” that bother me, as it puts power in the hands of the adult “gate keeper.” Instead of permitting and allowing, perhaps adults could try to be well-read advisors: “Check out these books; there’s a lot of debate about them, and both the original and altered versions can tell us a lot about our cultural values and how they change. What do you think?”

    Much love,

  11. Reply

    Joseph: the final few paragraphs of this post arrive at precisely this position, do they not? To quote myself: “I’m inclined to fall back on the (albeit imperfect) solution of reading troubling texts with young people, and talking with them about what they encounter.”

  12. Reply

    Yep. They do. But the phrasing earlier bugged me, even as you arrived there at the end with a simpatico conclusion. I think it bothered me because I know that you’re not the type to think about children in regards to what we can permit or allow them to do, dig? Love the blog, btw. Got caught up today; thus the several comments in a row. Inspiring stuff!

  13. Reply

    Joseph said “Check out these books; there’s a lot of debate about them, and both the original and altered versions can tell us a lot about our cultural values and how they change.”

    What assumptions are we making about the composition of that classroom? The on-the-ground reality of the children in that classroom, and the teacher, too?

    For example, how are you going to unpack the ideology of LHOP with its intended audience, assuming that’s the two-books you’d use… and where in the day/week/year would you use them?

    Can either of you imagine yourself reading aloud “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” (and it doesn’t matter who says it; its in the book three times)? You’d say to the children (as their teacher)—one (or several, depending on your location) of whom could be a Native child—that oft-used line “that’s what they thought back then. We don’t think that now.” Hearing that sort of thing is unsettling to a child.

    I’m speaking from experience at this point. My daughter’s 3rd grade teacher was trying to do that sort of critical work with Caddie Woodlawn. It broke down in several places, I came to learn over the course of a week. It came ‘home’ to me when Liz said to me as she was doing her homework “I don’t get it, Mom.” I looked over to see what she was doing, and saw Caddie Woodlawn. Liz is a smart kid. She obviously wasn’t struggling with the words themselves, but with the ideology.

    Liz is a senior at an Ivy League school now. She went through some brutal experiences in Urbana-Champaign where the university’s mascot was an Indian and the town is permeated with people who love that mascot and absolutely refuse to hear anything that challenges the romantic ideology they carry around with them—romantic ideology about American Indians. Liz has done well, but that’s with me as her mother—able to sit with her and talk a LOT about ideology, power dynamics, racism, etc. We are so far outside the norm for a Native family! If you look at the statistics on graduation rates, American Indians are down at the bottom with African Americans and Latino/a Americans. Look at employment, SES and the like, and imagine just how much time a family could give to batting down the bullshit their kids deal with on a day to day basis.

    I’d like to see teachers in the classrooms build kids up, especially in those crucial early years in school. Certainly kids are more capable than we think they are, and in that framework, we could say they are capable of taking on this difficult work of unpacking ideology, but in that framework, the teacher feels good for taking on this task and the white children learn something, but what are the unseen weights we add to the child that is already carrying a heavy burden?

  14. hope



    I think that your comments are one reason why there cannot be a single broadly-applied policy on things like this. Monica Edinger wrote about it sometime ago. I like to think of it as the “This is not the year for the Mikado,” post, but I am sorry, I don’t remember exactly what the title of it was.

    I used to think that teaching Huckleberry Finn was a hands-down no brainer. For exactly the reasons you have laid out, I’ve changed my mind over the last few years. I believe pretty adamantly that Huckleberry Finn should be taught in classrooms. It’s the most important literature I know of. But if you don’t have a teacher who can run a classroom with respect and intellectual rigor, then it’s better, I think, to read something else.

  15. Reply

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Thanks, in particular, to Debbie for her thoroughness. Debbie: I concur that (as noted above) the critical reading strategy is imperfect, and that (as noted in the fourth-to-last paragraph) “One problem of this approach … is the disproportional burden it places on members of the stereotyped group.” In other words, simply opposing censorship is not in itself a progressive impulse. (It’s a libertarian impulse.)

    I’m not sure precisely how to sustain freedom of inquiry except by factoring in age — something your example implies, and something that Mia Olufemi states explicitly. In other words, when it seems developmentally appropriate, then you take the critical reading approach, analyzing the texts with the students. But, prior to that point, you suggest different reading material.

    As Mia Olufemi asks, at what age?

  16. Beth Kakuma-Depew


    I think there’s another option rather than 1) Discourage children from reading them. It’s 1) Let the title fall by the way side. I think that the collective cannon of children’s literature changes over the generations, based on the feeling and viewpoints of the new generation of parents. Why re-read Babar when there’s a great new folktale from South Africa? I know it’s painful, but sometimes these racist and colonialist embedded ideas make these book too dated to be interesting.

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  18. Reply

    I’ve read the Babar books when I was a kid and I’m reading them now to my kids but I’ve never even noticed the whole “colonialism, sexism, or racism” angles. From my reading of these books Babar is, if anything, a socialist.

    I totally agree with the point that we need to take closer look at what we read to our kids, put it in context and discuss it (teachers and parents) but it’s also important to teach our children critical thinking skills. Wiping books clean in order not to offend anyone, instead of talking, explaining, examining and teaching, does the kids a huge disservice.

    Yes, there are exceptions especially concerning our history (Oompa loompas for example).

    • Zhazhmali Stanportafort


      This doesn’t take into account developmental stages. Once an impression is made at the precritical stage. It is naiveté of the highest gall to think the discursive mind can fully uproot such impressions. There is nothing wrong with bowlderization because there is nothing sacred about that particular draft the author arbitrarily considered authoritative. The decision is in our hands now, not the dead author’s. We are not votaries of his cult, and therefore we are perfectly justified in taking whatever may please and leaving the noxious aside. I would have no problem if every instance of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn were replaced with a less offensive designation, the first instance of which would be marked with an asterisk pointing to a footnote making reference to the abbreviated original term, explaining that every time the replacement term is found, the original had the offensive teem. Who is going to seriously argue that the main weight of the value of that book resides in that word? If so, it is a piss poor book. But if it transcends the word, substituting for it can do no damage. The footnote can point out the common usage of the term at the time in question, and discuss precisely why it was, and is, so denigrating. Nothing substantial is thereby lost anf everything gained.

      If certain bowlderizations retain the subtle ideologies of oppression, let that be the subject of later ages having reached the critical stage, and leave purer products for the precritical mind.

  19. Reply

    You might be interested in this comparison I did of four versions of The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle. I do think it is important that editors acknowledge and identify any changes made from the original, so at least the reader can make an informed decision. Because this particular book won a Newbery Medal, it’s likely to be around for quite a while longer.

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  21. Jill Bernstein


    Dear Philip Nel,

    This is the first time I’ve encountered your blog AND the first time I’ve read such a long post all the way to the conclusion. The topic is one I’ve often thought about in my own life. I have always read pretty voraciously and remember many of my childhood books well. Being of an age that I read most of the books you mentioned in their pre-adjusted versions, and remember thinking about the prejudice that popped up even then. In Mary Poppins there is some kind of derogatory allusion to African Americans. I can’t remember what it was exactly, but after more than 40 years I remembering that it gave me pause. Maybe not much more than pause, but enough of a pause that I still think about it. Not sure what I’m getting at, really, but this is a thought-provoking piece and I thank you.

  22. Reply

    the huge flaw with all of this is that no kid was told about critical thinking back when these books were published. it was accepted as fact that white [or whichever majority group was featured in the text] people are great and everyone else, not so great. and then [yes, I’m making a guess at this since I’m not 100 years old] kids ran up to their different in gender/race/religion peers and said, hey, you’re a cannibal or you live in houses made from sticks and dirt or you should do what I tell you because I’m your master.

    the book was the authority. it brought the lesson. I can’t see any reason why that would change now. oh, wait, maybe the kid will google it and become enlightened. silly me.

    I agree there is no solution. unless we want to just destroy all books where we disagree with their representations of race, gender, religion, etc. we can just trash all the books from previous ignorant times, maybe every 50 years just clean house and burn everything. because we will have become so much smarter.

    …and so you should probably add Penrod by Booth Tarkington to this list of offensive works.

  23. Reply

    Thanks for your kind words, Jill. I did think about including the different versions of the “Bad Tuesday” chapter (in Mary Poppins) in my “Censoring Children’s Literature” class, but decided that that aspect of regulating children’s reading was already covered by the versions of Doctor Dolittle and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

    The question of how to respond to such works is a vexing one. There are no perfect solutions. I wouldn’t agree with the Effing Librarian that there is “no solution,” but rather that all solutions are flawed. I think of John Faa’s line in The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK) by Philip Pullman (himself no stranger to having his books banned): “I see the Master as having terrible choices to make; whatever he chooses will do harm, but maybe if he does the right thing, a little less harm will come about than if he chooses the wrong choice” (p. 128). All responses to this issue cause some harm.

    I ultimately arrived at the “teach children to read critically” response because it seemed to me to cause the least harm and to do the most good. I could, however, be quite wrong about that. I’m not a member of any minority group; I’ve not experienced prejudice based on my race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Had I such experiences, it’s quite possible that I would have arrived at a different solution — such as those proposed by Debbie Reese or Beth Kakuma-Depew. (In saying this, I do not mean to imply that any personal experiences of theirs led them to these solutions, but rather that both solutions could potentially inflict less pain on the child who sees him-/herself stereotyped.)

    As Hope says, above, perhaps “there cannot be a single broadly-applied policy on things like this.”

    Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting. Since starting this li’l blog two months ago, this particular post has received the most comments. I appreciate your interest!

  24. Reply

    This is a wonderful and thought provoking post that I’ve sent along to many groups. I humbly refer to you in my own recent post regarding my discomfort with the portrayal of Native Americans in the Little House on the Prairie Books: (

    I also came across this great post today about the changes made in Richard Scarry’s texts:

    Ultimately, although I agree with your conclusion – to encourage children to be critical readers – I think the issue is even more complicated for children of color who are being taught about their own self worth and self identity through these texts. In other words, internalized racism comes from sources such as these (examples range from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to my own brown skinned daughter choosing to identify beauty with blondeness) — and that, in combination with the relative lack of multicultural children’s texts and multicultural protagonists is what troubles me the most.

    Thank you for a wonderful post!

  25. Mark


    I think changing the longstanding text of a book without informing the reader (particularly if you are not the author) is dishonest and kinda creepy. It reminds me of Winston from 1984, whose job was to rewrite old news articles to fit Big Brother’s current political doctine.

  26. Amy Bennett-Zendzian


    Thanks so much for this discussion, Phil. These comments are wonderful too! Since you asked me to share it: this site has different versions of illustrations of black and white Oompa-Loompas from British editions (Faith Jaques, dated 1977, and Michael Foreman, dated 1985):

    (The commentary that goes along with these illustrations, on this fan website dedicated to Dahl, seems to emphasize the “damage” done to the original text by “conservative literary critics” and the “suffering” of Dahl.)

  27. anonymous


    Man of la Book Said,

    I’ve read the Babar books when I was a kid and I’m reading them now to my kids but I’ve never even noticed the whole “colonialism, sexism, or racism” angles.

    Of course you didn’t. You have the privilege not to.

  28. Marijane White


    I wonder if you could get teachers to collaborate across grades, so that kids read a bowdlerized version at a young age, and then in a later grade, when their critical faculties are more developed, they read the original version with an explicitly critical intent and hold class discussions about why the text was changed in later versions.

  29. gwen


    As an African American woman I have to agree with Debbie. Another childrens book not mentioned is Rudyard Kipling. My now adult sons favorite books include Riki Tiki Tavi and The Elephant’s Child. I also read the original Doctor Doolittle and read all of Mark Twains works. Mark Twain should most certainly be taught in high schools. As I read the books to my sons, I explained the culture of the era the books were written. Bowdlerizing the texts allow people to deny what went on in the past. I have to argue this now, remember, Cold Mountain was a movie about the Civil War, which did not mention slaves or slavery at all! I am waiting for the day when history will be so bowdlerized that books will deny Native American genocide or African slavery the same way the Holocaust is denied. My sons, like me, are college graduates, and they need to know an accurate history of our literature as well as our country.

  30. Uly


    I am waiting for the day when history will be so bowdlerized that books will deny Native American genocide or African slavery the same way the Holocaust is denied.

    On the contrary, often it was historical books (movies, tv shows, etc.) that bowdlerized history.

    Look at Westerns. A whole genre of films with good white-hat white cowboys fighting bad black-hat white cowboys. And Indians.

    More recent versions have had black cowboys (sometimes), leading to cries of “OMG PC!”, but the reality is that in the days of the wild west there WERE a lot of black cowboys.

    Or, for that matter, look at the Little House books. Ms. Wilder carefully skips over (perhaps because she didn’t know) a number of the actual historical events going on around her.

  31. JustD


    This is a fascinating post yet it vexes me that literature, for the sake of literature, seems to far outweigh the cost it can extract on a certain racial/gender identity. I say this because I am a woman of color who, despite not having a college degree, takes exception to the fact that having my child/grandchild read something with derisive and demeaning undertones, whether overtly or covertly written, can somehow help elevate them in a society that has not always and still has problems with accepting them with open arms. I want them to be able to move beyond the scope of a limited perception too often held of them by the world. Please understand, this is MY VIEWPOINT. I cannot speak for anyone else.

    I am a voracious reader, I enjoy reading for the pleasure of it, escapism, entertainment, educational growth, general information, knowledge and lessons that can be gained and learned from another person’s experiences and perspectives. However, that said, I gained no great leap of empathy, growth or knowledge from having read Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Babar, etc.. What I did get was an underlying feeling of being disenfranchised, that still persists on some levels today, even in this colorless society.

    When I have to interrupt reading, what could be enjoyable story to a child, in order to explain and denounce the political and social implications as to what the writer meant, to help that child understand it, there’s a problem. That’s when I take exception that the book is bringing something inordinately unnecessary to the expansion of my child’s world view and mind. In fact, it is the limited perception of that writer’s personal intolerance and prejudices that I refuse to entertain or exalt at the expense of my child’s literary growth. Life will bring it’s own lessons.

    Truth cannot be diluted to make an intolerance more acceptable. Rewriting a book for the sake of cleaning it up will not lessen the fact or the impact of the author’s original intent. If you write from a racist mindset it stands to reason that the only interpretation that can be gleaned from your work is that you have little regard, empathy, compassion or consideration for someone different than you. How do you pretty that up?

    The world is an ugly place. Racism is alive and well. My children learned that in grade school and now my grandchildren are having the same experiences as well. I want them to feel they are apart of a bigger picture. I want them to read, see and hear words that encourage and uplift alongside those that don’t. I want them to have a chance to expand their horizons beyond borders, to see the bigger picture, rather than find they are a damned snapshop of it; polarized and ostracized because it’s written in some book that they are somehow ‘different’.

  32. gwen


    I was raised outside of the US. My parents carefully cultivated a Pollyanna view of the world for us where everyone is valued for their accomplishments and race was NEVER mentioned. I was ten before I knew I was black. We always lived in a multicultural neighborhood where we stood out no more than anyone else. My father was polylingual, something I did not see as unusual, and we were expected to pick up language and culture of the areas where we lived. I was a child of the 50s and 60s, but I knew nothing of MLK jr…not even the name, nor did I know of Malcolm X. I did not learn of the Civil Rights movement and the history of slavery was presented as a distant past which did not concern me. I knew nothing of racism, and had no tools to deal with it. My parents believed that if they raised us to just be human, we would be accepted that way…then, when I was in my mid teens, we moved to the USA and I could see how woefully unprepared I was for life in America. I became very depressed, and had to dig in to do a crash course on American social history. Can you imagine my embarrassment upon going to school in 1970 and admit I did not know the names of ANY of the heroes of the Civil Right movement?

    I made sure my sons had the tools to handle the grit, while they learned to reach for the skies. Ignoring the bad part of the human experience, just means that you set up history to repeat it. I have an extensive Black history library to this day. My sons, nieces and nephews know to reach for my bookshelf before checking the library for books they might need for their research.

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  34. QueenLyzard


    You know, I think something else to take into consideration is that what children take away from a book is not always the same message that is obvious to any adult reading it.

    When I was in the 4th grade, a teacher read us the original version of The Story of Doctor Doolittle. I grant that I was very naive on issues of race and the history of racism, and that the class was primarily white, but I distinctly remember that we absolutely worshiped the character of “Prince Bumpo.” He was funny, he was clever, and he was exciting. I think in part the very “childlike-ness” that comes across as blatantly racist to the older reader instead made us more able to identify with the character– since, after all, we were children.

    I am by no means saying that the portrayal is not problematic, and I don’t know how I would have reacted to it as a more racially aware– or African-American– student. But at the same time I do think it’s important to keep in mind that, through a child’s eyes, things often look very different indeed. In some cases, we may be worrying about a message that no child is actually picking up. Just as reading the Chronicles of Narnia did nothing to predispose me towards Christianity, I truly believe that none of Lofting’s books encouraged racist thinking on my part.

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  37. Shannon


    While I understand why the books are ‘sanitized’, from a teaching standpoint I think it does a disservice to the children to have them read the newer versions.

    Reading of the original version with it being put into context, such as with history lessons, can be an invaluable teaching opportunity. These books and scenarios can be used to teach critical thinking skills to students.

    For example, in Willy Wonka in discussing the oompa-loompas, several comparisons and questions could be posed to help the students understand what is going on.

    (If read during a unit on the slave trade) “What similarities do you see between Willy Wonka taking the oompa-loompas to England and those who brought slaves to the Americas?”

    “Even though(if) Willy Wonka treated the oompa-loompas well, do you think they were free to leave? Why or why not? What do you think would happen to them if they did leave?”

    “If things were so bad for the oompa-loompas in their homeland, what could Willy Wonka have done to try and help them there instead of taking them to a foreign country?”

    Of course there are many questions and ways of getting children to think about the intended meaning of the book and just as many ways to help them learn what is in contemporary society right/wrong about them. It is also a learning experience in realizing that just because it is written in a book, doesn’t necessarily make it right.

  38. Reply

    There are really no easy answers to any of this. Obviously, historical injustices shouldn’t be simply swept under the carpet as though they never happened. But exposing kids, particularly very young ones who may not have much capacity for critical thinking yet, to racism seems like a very bad idea. And yet, I’m also a bit uneasy about just abandoning classic childrens’ books from past eras, nearly all of which had at least some problematic elements if you look closely enough.

    My own son is only three, so he’s not yet in the age bracket for a lot of the books that this will come up with, and yet, I’m already starting to run into it here and there. Most alarmingly, I was once reading him a fairy tale from one of Andrew Lang’s fairy book series, and ran smack into the hero being persecuted by an “evil Jew” and ending up on a boat crewed by “hideous Negros”! D-: I think I improvised pretty well on the fly, but that was how I learned, when dealing with older books, always always always read them myself first, ahead of time!

    What I’ve been leaning toward thus far is, when reading to him (since he’s not old enough to read on his own yet), avoiding or toning down things that I think he’s not ready for for now, with the intent that when he’s a bit older, I will read them to him as written, and just talk to him about them afterwards, to help him learn how to think critically and question what he reads. I think those are vital skills, but I also recognize that they aren’t inborn, and that very young children may not yet be ready to hear stories with racist or otherwise offensive elements and not internalize them.

    Another thing I think is important, and which I find often tends to be overlooked in conversations like this, is that it’s not just about whether to read these books and in what form – it’s also about what else you do read to them, as well or instead. I try to make sure my son gets exposed to stories from all over the world, that show characters from a wide variety of cultures, lifestyles, etc. (and, for that matter, meets a lot of people from other cultures in daily life too). The more positive images of people of colour that he encounters, the less adverse impact the negative ones will have.

  39. Mary Galbraith


    Funny you should be talking about this. I was in the middle of creating a handout on the topic of “offensive African caricatures in classic children’s literature” for my “Little Nemo” week in class when I came across this discussion and appended a link to it for students to read. I’ll ask Jerry Griswold to post my handout to our SDSU children’s literature blog if you care to check it ou.

  40. Mary Galbraith


    Apropos of whether censorship is a good thing–

    Dr. Seuss’s images and words in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street have been changed so that we no longer see the word “Chinaman” and the figure doesn’t have a pigtail and yellow skin. (Interestingly, the joke that “say, even Jane could think of that” remains.)

    I notice that I don’t object to this change the way I object to the colorizing of the first and last pages of the book, which is as dunderheaded as colorizing the beginning and end of the Wizard of Oz movie.

  41. Reply

    Glad to see that this post continues to be of interest! Thanks, all, for keeping the discussion going. Mary: sure, if you’d like to post the handout & then link it back here, that’d be a-OK by me, and I expect that other readers would be interested, too.

  42. Mary Galbraith

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  46. David


    As a white man married to a black woman with mixed race twins reading Dr Dolittle never did me any harm, as a matter of fact it was one of my favourite books as a child and the only effect it had on me was to turn me into a vegetarian which actually has proven to be of long term health benefit!

    I’m currently reading the original Dr Dolittle to my ‘mixed race’ twins, (age 4) they love it and see no problem with ‘black’ or ‘white’ Its adults who interpret these things in a negative way.. Children simply take the stories as they are, funny and engaging.

    My two don’t see their black cousins as stupid, or there white ones as lords and masters. What grown ups need to do is forget their own silly political correctness leave children to enjoy themselves

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  49. Reply

    I grew up reading the Little House books, as well as Mark Twain’s many novels, and others. How is it that we are offended by the presentation of a historical fact of racism? Does removing the recognition of racism in our history remove the offense? Does changing Wilder’s word from “people” to “settlers” remove the fact that Colonial America (and beyond) treated Indians as somehow less-than whites?

    It is my (not so) humble and considered opinion that it’s important for kids to read these books, and to know that once, this was how people thought. Once, people were segregated by their color. Once, it was believed one human being could own another. Those ideas are not true, and not acceptable today, but ignoring history will not change it in fact.

  50. BCruz


    I have the original Doctor Doolittle and read it to my 5 and 7 year old. As adults we read into these books more than we should. To my kids, monkeys are monkeys and my kids are happy that they become well. I bird playing a “ruse” with the king was just a “ruse” and not because the King was any color. They see the animals as they are and the Dr as someone that is helping. At no time have my kids asked to see where this is all happening on a globe and think it is all pretend.

  51. Ji McArthur


    Who hasn’t revised a document. So why can’t an author revise their book. Why is everyone acting like this is so bad. It actually teaches children more when a book is revised by the author. In the case of Roald Dahl, he said that it didn’t occur to him how it could be negatively perceived. That was not the intent, the change would not destroy the integrity of his work, so he improved on his work. We’re always telling our children to be the best they can (improve). The original version is not erased nor would I want it to be.
    As a person of color as a child I read the Just So stories by Rudyard Kipling. I was hurt by the unnecessary racism in one of the stories. Depending on the story, it does affect and hurt minority children.
    Nevertheless a book should not be changed by anyone else but the author. I doubt that if Mark Twain was alive, he would change Huckleberry Finn. If he did, I would be OK with it. Let’s face it, it’s his book. What right does not anyone else have to it. This in no way means that I condone his language. Although I do realize that it’s based on that era.
    It does mean that your work will be judged in the manner that it’s written which can result in banning. This is not wrong either. We censor our children all the time. Do
    you have sex in front of your children? Is the sex talk for a 5 year old the same as a 13 year old? Everyone is entitled make the decision what their children do and do not see. Take it from a child of color this in no way means that you don’t expose your child to the history of racism. I would not deter a child from reading the real Huckleberry Finn but I would give a child the revised version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If they learn about the the original version, it’s not the end of the world. It gives us more to talk about.

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  53. Someone


    When I was just a kid, there were “offensive racial stereotypes” all over the place. I didn’t grow up taking these as facts. They were cartoons (in the traditional sense of the term) and didn’t mean anything. I was sometimes disconnected from reality, but when it came to appearance, mannerisms and the like, I found them funny, but I didn’t expect them to be true.

    Ji McArthur above me has the wrong idea, and uses false equivalency to try and lend strength to his point. I see no reason to hide racial history or features from anyone, as long as those people are sensible enough to draw proper conclusions. Being thin of skin is also not a constructive thing.

    Racism is a very recent invention. People have always hated other people, but not quite in this fashion. To combat it, we have to stop hiding negative portrayal of “non-whites” and “whites” alike, and build a tolerance, or hopefully a desensitization, to differences between human beings. We must all be able to move past our poor cultural choices, not hide them. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. We have definitely forgotten our past.

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  55. MaryAnn Ruegger


    I agree that there can still be value in reading some of these books, when combined with thoughtful discussions of the views at the time they were written. That view notwithstanding, are these valid texts to use in high stakes standardized texts, and in particular the 3rd grade reading tests now being used in a number of states. The result of “failing” these tests is that the student is not allowed to move on to the next grade. One of these books is currently being used in that way.

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  61. Sally


    This is a very interesting post. The comments are both thoughtful and thought provoking. I have just read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Pippi Longstocking with my 5yo son who is an indigenous Australian. We are now reading Doctor Dolittle (old version) which prompted me to find out how others deal with racism, sexism, colonialism issues in kids books. I find I change some words (mostly for my own comfort) and discuss others. My son is aware of colonialism from an Australian perspective. He understands that “Europeans used to think it was ok to take things from other countries and not respect people” and doesn’t mind if I sometimes pause to talk about how his family thinks differently from the authors of various books. Interestingly, while the Oompa-loompas made me uncomfortable (as they usually do), we discussed them in terms of asylum seekers and refugees which was much more relevant to our lives at present. My son thought that they were unsafe in their homeland and although the Chocolate factory wasn’t perfect, they were happy to make their home there and make the best of it.

  62. Kate


    I wonder if these types of changes to children’s books, while perhaps positive for removing outdated and shameful ideas of the past, do have an unintended consequence of whitewashing these books. Whitewashing, if anyone is unfamiliar, has been a term lately for Hollywood casting white actors in minority parts. By altering these stories, you are removing problematically racist ideas of the past, but the way they do it (in both Dolittle and Charlie and the Choclate Factory) also eliminates minority characters from the story. Would a better solution be, to keep the references to say (in the case of Dr. Dolittle) the King, Queen and Prince as black, but then make them less racist, problematic characters or does that require too much rewriting of the story? (For instance the King has to be a villain and lock up Dolittle and his friends, because if not you are completely rewriting several chapters in the book. So could we make him black, but less racist, but still performing his function in the book or is that too much to ask.) The thing is, I know that minority children look in stories for “people like me” it was one of the things that made the 1962’s Snowy Day picture book such a success – here was a picture book with a black child as the protagonist. We obviously don’t want to keep Dr. Dolittle’s prince as he was originally conceived (as a black African prince who is only willing to help Dr. Dolittle and his friends if he is magically made white – that is a horrible lesson to modern children no matter what their race). However, by trying to fix it by removing the prince’s race altogether are we whitewashing the story (removing the minority characters because of the negative traits that author associated with them)? Would a better fix be to somehow allow him to stay black but to have a different motivation for giving over the boat? Or again does this change the story too much? It is a change that I could see happening in a movie, since they are usually much more comfortable making large changes in adopting books to the movie screen, but in books we are of course more reluctant to make those sort of changes. Should we reconsider our willingness to alter a book or is it best to make fewer changes even if it results in removing minority characters from stories?

  63. Mike


    Bowdlerization is always–always, always– wrong, and generally does more harm than good. There was a sanitized edition of Huck Finn published some time back and I reached out to the son of the (black) scholar who taught my Twain course in college to ask what he thought his father would have felt, and he was adamant that the changes destroy the book and remove Twain’s meaning. We can read books to children and explain things to them. How would you “fix” Birth of a Nation, one of the most important films ever made? You simply can’t. You handle DWG’s stuff separately. You don’t change books to suit the day. You don’t censor books. That’s what they did in Germany ahead of (and during) WWII. We are not, cannot be, those people. Times change. We get that. And children need to get it– how are they going to even have a chance to get it if you show them a sanitized past? Censors are the worst and bowdlerizers are censors.

  64. Mike


    “However, if you’re concerned that the books simply dress up racial and colonial ideologies in different costumes, then you face a choice: (1) Discourage children from reading them, (2) Permit children to read only the Bowdlerized versions, (3) Allow children to read any version, original or Bowdlerized.”
    There is a fourth choice– to read (or for older children to have them read) the books in their original form. I take the fourth path– my children and grandchildren are able to see things that don’t fit with things now, but this is hardly a problem. Children are not stupid. To provide them only a sanitized past does them a grave disservice.

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