Against censorship — In Defense of Roald Dahl

My base line, for which I do not apologize is: Fuck censorship.

I would rather deal with the problems of “too much” free speech than any of the problems of suppressing freedom of speech and expression. 

I’ve been going off on Facebook a bit about the proposed — and I think pending —bowdlerization of author Roald Dahl’s books for children — which I read as a kid, and read to my son when he was young. So I’m going to say a few words here.

When young readers encounter an author like Roald Dahl or Shel Silverstein, they know immediately this is something different. The tone. This isn’t an all-is-sunshine atmosphere, this isn’t Disney, this is darker. They instinctively know to be wary.

And they should be. 

Let’s talk about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, probably the most famous of Dahl’s books for kids because of the two Willy Wonka movies. Dahl doesn’t hold back when he’s describing the children who tour the magical factory. His narrator is a bit mean. Most kids reading this tone will feel a little bit uncomfortable — and ultimately probably a little bit defensive of at least some of the children. 

It’s masterful, really. A reader starts out not liking the children, and then finds herself confronted with the notion of justice, and mercy. All the children broke rules in the factory — and they all broke rules according to their own natures. Of course Augustus Gloop is going to be tempted to break a rule (which he learned after the fact, if I remember correctly) pertaining to eating candy. Of course Mike Teavee is going to be so focused on television waves that he ignores the rules. Young readers realize the kids broke the rules and were punished — but did they really get what they deserved? And what does that mean anyway? Is it justice? What about the role of mercy?

Of course young readers want Charlie to win. In the book, he wins the factory because he’s the last child standing — the others have all met their Oompa-Loompa-enhanced fates. Young readers want to be more like Charlie than like Veruca Salt or Violet Beauregard. 

And what is Charlie? He’s respectful, considerate, appreciative and lucky. 

And what is the factory? Well, on the tour, it’s a pitfall-ridden series of challenges. Not unlike life. 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is exactly modeled on original, un-bowdlerized fairytales. And those tales taught lessons, too. Many of the same lessons. Be appreciative. Take advantage of opportunities. Be kind. Don’t go with the crowd — do what you believe is right. Be respectful, but not cringing. Be discerning — pay attention, and be humble enough to learn. 

That’s a lot for a kid’s book that is also crazy funny, snarky, complicated, silly, imaginative, and at times a bit scary. 

Kids can handle it. 

This bowdlerization of Roald Dahl’s books bothers me on many levels, not the least of which is my maxim: Fuck censorship. But also because of the contemptuous opinion of children the censors evince. Stop telling kids what to think. Let them figure out a few things on their own. Let them face challenges and learn to do the right thing. Let them understand that, even when someone has done something wrong, there ought to be a path back. And that some wrong behavior isn’t tolerable. Let them begin to understand that we are all shaped by our environments, but how we respond is up to us. Let them face meanies and baddies in literature, so that when they come upon them in real life, they know what they are seeing. Get out of their way a little bit. Have some faith. Roald Dahl did. 

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