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I was aghast…

April 25, 2011

By Alison Allen-Gray

A few years ago at a conference on children’s literature, I heard a leading publisher announce the intention to produce re-written versions of children’s classics to make them more accessible. My gasp earned me a hard stare (clearly learnt from Paddington Bear) from my neighbour. I was, in the parlance of the stories I read as a child, aghast. My revulsion at the idea stemmed, I think, from two things. One was comradely outrage that long-established authors should be meddled with. The other was a general unease that has to do with obliterating texture from language. I think it is a good thing for children to become aware, through unfamiliar vocabulary and a style of language that is different from their own, that social relationships and attitudes were different in years gone by to how they are now. Absorbing different styles and textures of language as your reading grows certainly helps when you meet the adult classics of, say, Austen or Dickens. In fact, it helps with everything.

However, a conversation with fellow Islington Writers for Children members the other day led me to re-examine my thoughts on this one. I have to concede that I was a fortunate child; if when reading I came across a word I didn’t know I could often ask an adult for clarification. If there was no one around to ask I’d either deduce the meaning by context or, if push came to shove, get a dictionary. The dictionary was a last resort, though, because usually I’d want to press on with the story. And this brings me to the thought-provoking point made by Marion about Enid Blyton: here we have a body of work that is all about driving an exciting story at full pace. Would Enid herself have wanted her work re-written so that outdated language didn’t hold up the story? Other issues, of course, are the sexism and racism that one encounters in some of the ‘classics’. Should they stay or should they go? Is it commendable to banish them from the literature of the past because we are now more enlightened? Or is it an irresponsible dishonesty?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Lorna permalink
    April 29, 2011 3:18 pm

    A very interesting post. I found, when teaching a set text to young adults, that the words and phrases used would sometimes throw up interesting controversies. In the set text ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck, one of the characters is referred to as ‘the nigger’. The Year 9 boys I was reading this with were indeed ‘aghast’ but when it was explained that, at the time, this was not a derogatory title, they were interested and accepting. I was pleased that our School Editions of the book had not attempted to change this.
    There may be occasions when a character’s name could be deemed inappropriate, for example, ‘Titty’ in Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has been re-named Dorothea (her ‘proper name’, in the story) in recent editions. But I absolutely believe that we have no right to change an author’s language. If sufficient interest is there, children will step up to the mark and get stuck in, and increase their reading power while doing so.

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