Australian supermarket chain Aldi has removed Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes from its shelves. Revolting Rhymes, first published in 1982,is Dahl’s collection of poems, reimagining traditional fables through the author’s signature deranged humor. One of the stories in the book is “Cinderalla,” in which Dahl portrays Prince Charming as a murderous psychopath, taking pleasure in beheading Cinderalla’s step sisters:
“Poor Cindy’s heart was torn to shreds. My Prince! she thought. He chops off heads! How could I marry anyone who does that sort of thing for fun? The Prince cried, ‘Who’s this dirty slut? Off with her nut! Off with her nut!'”
Dahl’s use of the word slut has proven to be controversial, however. The Guardian writes the book was removed after at least one complaint on the company’s Facebook page that the book had “an unacceptable word in it for kids!!! Not ok!”
Unfortunately, this is not the first time Dahl’s work has had trouble with censorship and criticism from adults. Many of Dahl’s most famous and beloved children’s books have been challenged in various schools and libraries. Books like James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have been labelled inappropriate for children, with would-be censors claiming the books are too scary, racist, and misogynistic and that references to drugs, alcohol, and sex mean they should be considered profane.
As for the recent criticism for Dahl’s use of the word slut, many are arguing that the writer wasn’t using it in the modern, derogatory definition — a promiscuous woman — but rather someone who is dirty and untidy. Regardless, censorship cannot be a means to an end. Children’s author Andy Griffiths even argues that dark subjects like the ones Dahl writes about — and especially the way he writes it — are good for children:
“This is the kind of material that kids love, because kids want to go to those darker places and to the icky places, and explore them.
One of the best ways to do that is with humour, so that you touch the fearsome, the fearful, the disgusting that we all know is there, and the kids need to have it acknowledged… But with humour you take away the fear from that, it neutralises it and makes it something you can celebrate in a healthy way.”
This brings to mind the controversy that surrounded Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen. Most librarians and adults had objections to the book’s protagonist being depicted in the nude. Sendak’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, wrote to one librarian who expressed extreme objections to the book. Nordstrom offered an argument that can also pertain to Dahl’s work:
I am indeed distressed to hear that in the year 1972 you burned a copy of a book. We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children… truly, it does not disturb children! Mr. Sendak is a creative artist, a true genius, and he is able to speak to children directly. For children… are usually tremendously creative themselves. Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses?
Just as with Sendak, Dahl’s work has brought much joy to the lives of his children readers. It is only, as Nordstrom puts it, “adults who ever feel threatened.”
Nusha Ashjaee is a writer and cartoonist. She lives in Brooklyn.