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While reading Little House on the Prairie aloud to my 7-year-old daughter, I found myself in a moral quandary. Do I stick with the original, time-honored text and refer to the Native Americans as “savages,” or do I engage in a little impromptu editing? The book is actually very even-handed when it comes to the Indians, and if anything, Laura Ingalls Wilder was trying to show readers just how un-savage they really were. Still, reading racist language aloud to your child can make a parent feel icky.
This is an all too common problem with classics. And I feel horribly guilty when it occurs. These are, after all, the same stories I got to experience in their unexpurgated versions when I was her age. But times have changed.
Whether it’s something that’s racially insensitive, frighteningly violent, vaguely misogynistic (Hans Christian Andersen covers all of these areas pretty well, by the way), or just plain potty-mouthed, my mind goes into censorship mode. I didn’t realize until recently how Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, used the word “ass” in every single one of his books. Granted, he’s generally not referring to a body part when he does it. And frankly, it wouldn’t bother me to have my daughter read the phrase, “acting like an ass,” in a book. I just don’t want her to hear it coming from her father’s mouth.
So I perform these acts of Big Brotherly rewording, even though I’m the type of person who would never buy his daughter one of those “retold,” watered-down versions of classic novels. And I’d hate to believe that overprotective parenting has tainted reading bedtime stories. This is why I assuage my guilt by censoring on a case-by-case basis.
When the offending text is pivotal to the story, I turn it into a teachable moment. In the case of Little House, I opted to use the term “savages,” and explained to my daughter why the word was used. Mr. Dahl, on the other hand, never had to use and re-use a certain three-letter word—so there I chose to edit. I analogize it to the hubbub a few years back when Steven Spielberg magically erased all the guns from the DVD release of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and replaced them with walkie-talkies. Cinema purists cried foul, but you know what? The movie was unharmed, because NASA scientists never needed to tote semi-automatics. It was inconsequential. Just like the oversized bugs in the movie version of James and the Giant Peach calling one another “nitwits” instead of “asses” as they do in the book. It’s a victimless crime.
Now my daughter wants me to read Peter Pan to her. Looks like I’m going to need to consult an ethicist.