Roald Dahl books rush to top of Australian bestseller lists ahead of edits

Changes to the language used in books by Roald Dahl have sent sales of his children’s books soaring after Australians rushed to buy copies before the revised editions were released.

This week a 16-book box-set had risen to No.2 on Amazon’s Australian bestseller list by Thursday.

Roald Dahl books on display.Credit:AP

Publisher Penguin Random House has announced it will publish “classic” versions of Dahl’s children’s novels after it received criticism for cuts and rewrites that were intended to make the books suitable for modern readers.

Blues Point Bookshop owner Helen Baxter said she had reordered copies, anticipating a rush for unrevised versions.

“I am having people start to ask, and I’ve just reordered a bulk of the older editions,” she said, having ordered 12 copies of his bestsellers.

“We’re a very small shop, but I would try to carry [the previous version] for as long as we can.”

The small, independent bookstore in Sydney’s McMahons Point has been running for 28 years and is known locally for catering to children. It includes an area where children can sit on the floor or couch and read.

Baxter was dismayed at the announced revisions but didn’t believe they would affect her bottom line. She sells a few hundred copies of Roald Dahl books a year, but those sales are dwarfed by Australian authors.

“We’ve got huge support from our communities and from our school for Australian children’s writers … and that’s my main focus, because I think Australians are very lucky to have such a wonderful collection of Australian writers.”

Along with releasing updated editions, Penguin said 17 of Dahl’s books would be published in previous form later this year as “The Roald Dahl Classic Collection” so that readers could make their own choice.

The move follows criticism of scores of changes to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other classics for recent editions published under the company’s Puffin children’s label, in which passages relating to weight, mental health, gender and race have been altered.

Augustus Gloop, Charlie’s gluttonous antagonist in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – originally published in 1964 – becomes “enormous” rather than “enormously fat”. In Witches, an “old hag” becomes an “old crow”, and a supernatural being posing as a human woman may be a “top scientist or running a business” instead of a “cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman”.

The Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights to the books, said it had worked with Puffin to review and revise the texts because it wanted to ensure that “Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today”.

While tweaking old books for modern sensibilities is not a new phenomenon in publishing – or even for Roald Dahl books – the scale of the edits drew strong criticism from free-speech groups such as writers’ organisation PEN America, and from authors including Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie, who lived under threat of death from Iran’s Islamic regime for years because of the alleged blasphemy of his novel The Satanic Verses, called the revisions “absurd censorship”.

Rushdie was attacked and seriously injured last year at an event in New York. He tweeted news of Penguin’s change of heart on Friday: “Penguin Books back down after Roald Dahl backlash!”

Dahl’s books have sold more than 300 million copies and have spawned numerous film and stage adaptations.

Dahl, who died in 1990, is also a controversial figure because of antisemitic comments made throughout his life. His family apologised in 2020.

In 2021, Dahl’s estate sold the rights to the books to Netflix, which plans to produce a new generation of films based on the stories.

Francesca Dow, managing director of Penguin Random House Children’s, said the publisher had “listened to the debate over the past week which has reaffirmed the extraordinary power of Roald Dahl’s books and the very real questions around how stories from another era can be kept relevant for each new generation”.

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