Diversity consultancy criticised over Roald Dahl 'edits'

17 March 2023 Consultancy.uk 5 min. read
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Publisher Puffin has commissioned sensitivity readers to rewrite or remove parts of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, to modernise language deemed offensive. The changes were reportedly made in conjunction with consulting firm Inclusive Minds, though the firm’s website explicitly states it does “not edit or rewrite text”.

In a career spanning five decades, Roald Dahl authored some of the world’s best known children’s books. Titles including ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘Matilda’, and ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide, inspiring popular film, television and musical adaptations along the way. But his stories still cross generational divides, resonating with children born decades after Dahl himself passed away, some of the language used in those stories has become increasingly hard to reconcile with modern social norms.

Recently, Dahl’s publisher, Puffin, and the Roald Dahl Story Company set out to amend the works for a 21st century audience, in conjunction with Inclusive Minds. Founded in 2013, the last 10 years have seen the consultancy work with clients across the children’s book industry, helping them to ensure stories include authentic representation of all people.

Diversity consultancy criticised over Roald Dahl 'edits'

Various sections of Inclusive Minds’ website state that the firm works in an advisory capacity, and does not “edit or rewrite texts”. Instead, the firm provides “book creators with valuable insight from people with the relevant lived experience that they can take into consideration in the wider process of writing and editing.”

Speaking to The Guardian, Alexandra Strick, a co-founder of Inclusive Minds, echoed this. She explained that “[Inclusive Minds] aims to ensure authentic representation,” and works closely with the book world “and with those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity”. Even so, Inclusive Minds now finds itself at the heart of a cross-Atlantic furore over ‘censorship’.

An accusatory article from the New York Post recently stated that “Inclusive Minds — a “collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature” was hired to revise, and in some cases, rewrite entire sections of Dahl’s books,” – an allegation which left the Post’s journalist so furious they were seemingly unable to complete proofing of their own work, even as they tried to explain how “’woke’ consultants” had been allegedly removing “fat”, “ugly” and “ohter terms now deemed offensive.”

A second reporter, seemingly also stricken with incandescent rage, determinedly mashed out the sentence “Oompa Loompas, the diminutive staffers of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, was once called ‘small men,’ yet are now ‘small people.’”

Interestingly, this is not the first time Oompa-Loompas have been revised to keep up with changing times. In the first edition of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, Jeremy Treglown’s ‘Roald Dahl: A Biography’ notes that the Oompa-Loompas were originally “a tribe of 3,000 amiable black pygmies,” who factory owner Willy Wonka imported from the “African jungle”. Treglown’s book added that “Wonka’s little slaves are delighted with their new circumstances, and particularly with their diet of chocolate. Before they lived on green caterpillars, beetles, eucalyptus leaves, ‘and the bark of the bong-bong tree.'”

After mounting public debate around the book in the US, where the book was released amid the Civil Rights movement, that Dahl’s publishers decided “to those growing up in a racially mixed society, the Oompa-Loompas were no longer acceptable as originally written”, with an updated incarnation of the characters appearing in the 1973 edition of the book. According to Treglown, these Oompa-Loompas had become “dwarfish hippies with long ‘golden-brown hair’ and ‘rosy-white’ skin.”

According to a spokesperson for the Roald Dahl company, the more recent changes are in the spirit of that precedent. Speaking to The Guardian, the source said that whenever publishing “new print runs of books written years ago,” it was common practice to “review the language used alongside updating other details including a book’s cover and page layout.” To that end, a notice from Puffin at the bottom of the copyright page of the latest editions of Dahl’s books adds that each book was “written many years ago,” so the company regularly reviews the language “to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”

In this case, though, the outrage surrounding the updates to Dahl’s work seems to be directed not so much what is changed, but who might have changed it. According to reports from National Review and The Daily Mail, “inclusivity ambassadors and sensitivity readers – aged eight to 30” reported to Jo Ross-Barrett.

Reporters have fixated on the identity of Ross-Barrett in particular. They recently departed Inclusive Minds to become a full time DEI professional, but apparently “posted on LinkedIn in 2022 that she was working on a secret project involving the work of a well-known children's author.” Whether this would have been an issue to them, were Ross-Barrett not to have allegedly described themselves as a “non-binary, asexual, polyamorous relationship anarchist who is on the autism spectrum” is unclear – however, their identity seems something of a moot point, considering the additional report came days after Puffin confirmed it would also be keeping Dahl’s original versions in print, too.

Puffin announced the release of the Roald Dahl Classic Collection 'to keep the author's classic texts in print' claiming they had 'listened to the debate'. The news followed demands from King Charle’s wife, Camilla, who claimed the changes were putting curbs on 'freedom of expression'.