Esio Wot? Why Roald Dahl does and doesn’t matter


Cara Doherty (she/her) considers the importance of children's literature

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Image by Image Credit: 10302144 via Pixabay

By Cara Doherty

Perhaps it feels redundant to dwell on the importance of reading in both an increasingly literate and struggling United Kingdom. If you search around for it, you can glean from the UK government website that the country’s literacy rate is at 99 percent. While bright blue and bold on the same site’s homepage sit the most popular searches: ‘Get support with the cost of living’, ‘Find out about help you can get with your energy bills’ and ‘Find a job’,  ultimately and practically, what can reading do?

It can be easy to devalue and dismiss the importance of reading for children as simply an order from the mighty Ofsted. The science, however, blatantly disagrees. Expectedly, reading for pleasure helps children make more progress in school. One finding of the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), a wide and significant endeavour to follow around 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a range of areas, was that regular reading widens vocabulary and improves spelling in both the long and short term, with higher levels of attainment in vocabulary tests even 30 years after the original testing. But a smaller study of 6,000 of these young people being followed in the BCS70 in 2013 showed the importance of reading as something that breaks down socioeconomic barriers; children that read for pleasure progressed further in school regardless of social background, confirmed by another study by the National Literacy Trust that looked specifically at the academic attainment of children who received free school meals.

In an article intended to suggest practical applications of children’s literature, I don’t want to spend too long just listing interesting scientific studies. It is important to note that hard evidence is known and viable. Looking outside of just academic resources, there is even evidence that reading improves empathy and decision-making skills due to the immersive experience that books provide – the brain reacts as if the events on the page are happening in real life, quite literally placing the child in the protagonist’s shoes. Up against this extent of evidence, it’s difficult to argue that both books themselves and, crucially, their content, don’t matter.

This year especially there has been even more of a buzz around the content of children’s literature than usual. In February 2023, publisher Puffin announced hundreds of changes to children’s author Roald Dahl’s original texts made by ‘sensitivity readers’ so that the books “can continue to be enjoyed by all today”. The changes, which included the removal of language concerning physical appearance, gender, race, mental health and a host of other topics have sparked fierce controversy and presumably the opposite of what the publisher intended: a spike in sales and resales of the original, now ‘rare’ editions. The move was deemed so controversial that Puffin have now gone back on their word, announcing that the original editions will be sold alongside their ‘updated’ counterparts, and thus realistically erasing the need for the new editions at all.

The ‘morality’ of these changes is not the focus here. While parents may worry themselves with the supposedly pervasive power of ‘cancel culture’, I doubt children will notice any difference in these still colourful, outrageous but now more inclusive books. In a multicultural UK, inclusivity matters. Black students, for instance, are less likely to read for pleasure. However, is this surprising, considering the overwhelmingly white writers and characters of most school-assigned texts? John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a popular choice for school curricula, even features repeated racial slurs. How do we expect to encourage reading for pleasure if we don’t offer everyone the opportunity to see themselves, or what they could be, represented on the page? Reports such as the What Kids Are Reading Report (WKAR) and publisher Farshore's consumer insights research show a decline in children reading for pleasure, often opting for digital entertainment instead. Notably, the vast majority of the population, young and old, would say they struggle with limiting their screen time. But one can’t help but wonder if the benefits of being online, the ease in which you can find your specific interests and communities are missing from the books on our curricula. If a wider, more inclusive set of novels were foregrounded, perhaps a sense of community could be found on the page.

The term ‘inclusivity’ seems to strike some today as controversial, often paired by conservative American politicians with “indoctrination” (causing you to wonder whether it was just the nearest “in” word they could think of). But within literature, inclusivity is about celebrating difference and exploring a wide range of diverse cultures and experiences, a concept I am sure any current or past avid reader can connect with. Is not the crisp wintery landscape of Narnia, with talking fauns and friendly beavers, an example of the experience of immersion in a new world? Did Avonlea Village’s struggle to accept the motormouth, orphaned Anne not offer a shining example of accepting and celebrating difference? What makes this experience of stepping into someone else’s shoes different from Onjali Q. Raúf’s 2018 bestseller The Boy at the Back of the Class, offering a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a renowned Nigerian writer that tackles questions of identity and oppression within her work, delivered a TedTalk in 2009 titled ‘The danger of a single story’. In it, she asks us to think more deeply about where stories begin and end, about who tells them and who is left on the margins. The audience laughs as she brings these questions to life with a story about how, as a child, she would write stories about children who ate apples and drank ginger beer, despite eating mangoes, and not even knowing what ginger beer was. But this, she asserts, is the danger of a single story: these were the only stories she read, so these were the only stories she told. As of writing this, this speech has 34,897,923 views on the TedTalk website. But 14 years later, we are still learning the message anew. Divorcing inclusivity from literature divorces it from learning and growth. Divorcing inclusivity from literature divorces it from what makes it so great.

So where does this leave us? I’d like to bring things a little closer to home. The York Art Gallery showed a British Library exhibition earlier this year, ending 4th of June. Named ‘Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels’, it celebrated bold, convention-defying characters of children’s literature’s past and present, showcasing a fraction of the British Library’s extensive collection of books, manuscripts and original artwork. While I was drawn in by an aforementioned personal childhood favourite, the first UK edition of Anne of Green Gables, this exhibition truly shone with its accompanying workshops. ‘Wicked Wednesdays’, run by children’s theatre company Story Craft Theatre, offered titles such as ‘The Power of the Imagination’ and ‘Standing Up for Yourself’, feeding into the exhibition’s aims of encouraging children to connect with the rebel within themselves: these spirited characters ask children what causes they wish to put their own spirit behind. Events such as these are - ,if pushed - what I would argue sits at the heart of this article. Not only do they showcase the importance of literature as a tool for social change (but so could the common feature of book burning in oppressive regimes), but they offer an example, an aspiration for something active that can be done to enact such change.

We look out on a shaky future - ,most notably, the dark clouds (or should I say too bright sun) of climate change creating uncertainty and fear. The potential for the world to change – irrevocably, irreparably – creates just one certainty: we need a generation that can change it for the better. We need innovation, creativity, kindness, generosity, conscience like we have never needed it before. We need perspective and sympathy. We need intelligence, resolve, and boldness. We need good children’s literature.