Should children’s books from an earlier time be edited to remove offensive language, or is that censorship?
Successive generations of children have loved books such as ‘Pippi Longstocking’, ‘The Robber Hotzenplotz’ and ‘Emil and the Detectives’. But times change and language changes too, bringing problems: occasionally, words that were entirely acceptable when a book was first written acquire different meanings or are seen as being discriminatory.
The word used in children’s books that most frequently attracts criticism and is sometimes edited out is the term ‘negro’ for people with dark skin. The term derives from the Latin ‘niger’ and lives on in in the French and Spanish terms ‘nègre’ and ‘negro’. It originally simply meant ‘black’, but over the last few years, this word has come to be seen as politically incorrect.
This is one reason why modern-day readers cannot read Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s world-famous ‘Pippi Longstocking’ without a sharp intake of breath at the point at which Pippi refers to her father as the ‘Negro King’. In a more recent edition of the book, Pippi’s words have been edited, and she now describes her father as the ‘South Seas King’. There are also plans to edit another well-loved book, ‘The Little Witch’ by German author Otfried Preußler, who died recently: in the section where the children disguise themselves, they will no longer be referred to as ‘little negroes’ but as ‘little chimney-sweeps’.
There has been a passionate debate in Germany about censorship in children’s books. Sweet-toothed German consumers are now used to their favourite chocolate-covered marshmallow teacake being termed a ‘chocolate kiss’ rather than, as previously, a ‘negro kiss’. Editing books is, however, seen by many people as problematic because it is perceived as a form of censorship. The Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel even questioned recently whether censorship meant literature was dying.
Censorship in children’s books: insult or language change?
Advocates of editing children’s books argue that many old usages are now offensive and must be removed. They argue that editing does not harm children’s books in any way and has nothing to do with censorship but merely reflects a desire to treat others with respect. The opponents of such editing counter that language changes and that words alone will not turn children into racists. They argue that having such terms in books gives parents an opportunity to discuss these issues with their children. You can’t change all books and all stories, their argument goes – and where does censorship stop? In any case, intellectual property is protected under German copyright law.
Children’s authors themselves are also divided. Otfried Preußler eventually agreed to changes being made to his books, but the Austrian children’s author Christine Nöstlinger is critical of such editing. Her preference is to attach a footnote to the words explaining what they meant when they were written and what they mean now.
A useful discussion
A survey by the public opinion research organisation YouGov found that 70% of all German nationals surveyed thought that children’s books should not be edited. This is an astonishing attitude, especially from people who themselves have dark skin, many of whom feel that the specific words, as well as the discussion, are offensive and that no account is taken of their feelings. It will be interesting to see what turn the debate takes. However, journalist Barbara John from Der Tagesspiegel thinks that the mere fact that the issue raises such passions is important: ‘This is a useful discussion, because it holds up a mirror to our values and attitudes.’
Children’s author Otfried Preußler
Otfried Preußler, one of Germany’s most popular children’s authors, died in February 2013. Preußler was born in Bohemia in 1932 and began his career as a teacher, initially writing children’s books in his spare time. Eventually, he became a full-time author, producing such much-loved children’s classics as ‘The Robber Hotzenplotz’, ‘The Little Witch’, ‘The Little Water Sprite’ and ‘The Little Ghost’. Virtually every German child and many in other countries have copies of these books on their shelves, while Preußler’s ‘The Curse of the Darkling Mill’ has been particularly popular with older children. Preußler wrote a total of 32 books, which have been translated into 55 languages and won many prizes. Asked why he wrote children’s books, he replied, ‘Just because it’s fun.’
Discussion on chilren's books in the Community
Which are your favourite children’s books? Do they use other problematic words and expressions? Which German children’s books have you come across? Do you think there is a danger of censorship if individual words in children’s books are edited? Can you understand why there is a debate? And how dangerous can words really be? Have your say on children’s books and censorship and discuss the issues with us and other alumni in the KULTUR-CULTURE community group!