Editing previously released media is nothing new: In ancient Egypt, for example, pharaohs sometimes defaced monuments dedicated to their predecessors, and after the Reformation, Catholic authorities in many European cities had the text of some books expunged rather than destroying the tomes entirely (they called the practice “correction”).
Post-publication editing is so common that there’s even a word for it: bowdlerization. The term comes from Thomas Bowdler, an English doctor credited with creating 1807’s The Family Shakespeare. The book featured heavily edited versions of Shakespeare’s works that were supposedly more family friendly; to give just one example, a notorious alteration in Othello has Iago saying “your daughter and the Moor are now together” instead of “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” Here are a few books that have been bowdlerized more recently.
1. Roald Dahl
In February 2023, controversy erupted when it was reported that Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin Random House, was reissuing multiple books by Roald Dahl with language that had been altered with the help of a sensitivity reader. The changes include removing every instance of the words fat and ugly; as a result, Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is described as “enormous,” and Mrs. Twit in The Twists, is “beastly” rather than “ugly and beastly.” All references to “female” were altered to “woman,” so Miss Trunchbull in Matilda is a “most formidable woman,” as opposed to a “most formidable female.” Some text was also added to The Witches: A passage about how witches are bald under their wigs now ends with, “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”
After people like Camilla, the Queen Consort and author Salman Rushdie weighed in on the hullabaloo (Rushdie, who acknowledged that Dahl was “no angel,” called the move “absurd censorship,” while Camilla seemingly alluded to it in a book club meeting), Puffin announced that they would publish unexpurgated versions of the 16 books that were altered as “The Roald Dahl Classic Collection” while still selling the censored versions, giving readers the option to choose which edition they preferred. Some cynics have commented that Puffin would likely make more money thanks to the controversy and the multiple editions of the same book.
2. R.L. Stine
Author R.L. Stine was among those who were shocked when it was reported that some of the books in his popular young adult series Goosebumps were being edited with his participation. Stine quickly denied the claim, stating on his official Twitter account, “The stories aren’t true. I’ve never changed a word in Goosebumps. Any changes were never shown to me.” Scholastic defended the alterations, releasing a statement that claimed that the changes were made to “keep the language current and avoid imagery that could negatively impact a young person’s view of themselves today, with a particular focus on mental health.”
The adjustments included redacting a reference to girls having a crush on their school’s headmaster in the 1996 book, Say Cheese and Die – Again!; having Slappy the dummy use a magic spell to knock a girl out instead of a “love tap” in 1998’s Bride of the Living Dummy; and changing a group of boys making “a loud wolf-whistle” in 1997’s The Curse of Camp Cold Lake to instead say they “whistled loudly.”
3. Hugh John Lofting
The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh John Lofting was first published in 1920 and has since spawned multiple sequels, stage versions, and film adaptations. While the books condemned slavery and European colonialism, by the 1960s, their age was starting to show: Some characters (like an African prince who wanted to alter his looks to appeal to Sleeping Beauty) were no longer acceptable to many readers, and the titular character, New York librarian Isabelle Suhl said, was “the personification of The Great White Father Nobly Bearing the White Man's Burden.”
According to a blog post on MIT Libraries, “Editions began appearing in edited form, with derogatory language and plot elements revised or removed entirely,” and in 1988, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lofting’s birth—and at the request of his son Christopher, who was also the executor of his estate—new, heavily censored versions of eight books in the series were reissued. Christopher Lofting wrote in the afterward of these editions, “The deciding factor was the strong belief that the author himself would have immediately approved of making the alterations. Hugh Lofting would have been appalled at the suggestion that any part of his work could give offense and would have been the first to have made the changes himself.”
4. Ian Fleming
Casino Royale, the first book in Ian Fleming’s popular spy series, turns 70 in 2023. To celebrate, the novels are being re-released—but they won’t be identical to the books that were originally published.
Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., hired sensitivity readers to review the books and made edits based on their recommendations. The edits include the removal of some racial slurs (though others remain) and cutting mentions of race where it was deemed unnecessary. The book will also now feature a disclaimer that reads: “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace. A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”
This isn’t the first time the James Bond books have been altered due to the sensibilities of certain readers; with Fleming’s permission, both the sex scenes and racial references in some of his Bond books were toned down for their original American releases.
5. Richard Scarry
The beloved children’s author and illustrator Richard Scarry, who wrote more than 250 books, is known for his “Best Ever” series, which follows the lives of the residents of Busytown and has been adapted into multiple television series, educational videos, and even a video game.
The first book in the series, Best Word Book Ever, was published in 1963; times have changed since then, however, and the books now reflect that: More recent editions of the Best Ever series have been tweaked to show gender equality (a mother cat with a stroller became a father cat with a stroller, for example), and to remove imagery depicting racial stereotypes (including a drawing of a mouse wearing a Native American headdress), among other changes.
6. Mark Twain
Despite being one of the most beloved books of all time, Mark Twain’s American classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been frequently challenged, censored, and outright banned since its original publication in 1884. In 2011, Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University, edited the book, removing its hundreds of uses of the n-word with the word slave.
It was a controversial move. “The book is an anti-racist book and to change the language changes the power of the book,” Cindy Lovell, then the executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, said at the time. “He wrote to make us squirm and to poke us with a sharp stick. That was the purpose.”
Gribben defended the changes, claiming that the use of the slur discouraged instructors from teaching the books; by removing it, he hoped that the book would be more likely to stay in school curriculums. He also said that while it’s impossible to know what Twain would think of the changes to his book, Gribben himself believed that the author would be OK with them, since he was a savvy marketer who wanted to sell as many copies of his books as possible.
7. Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie is another famous writer whose books have been re-edited multiple times for things like content and shifting cultural norms, particularly when it comes to words describing race and ethnicity. The latest edition of 1937’s Death on the Nile (one of the Poirot novels), published by HarperCollins, removes a character describing her revulsion of children, changing “they come back and stare, and stare, and their eyes are simply disgusting, and so are their noses, and I don’t believe I really like children,” to “They come back and stare, and stare. And I don’t believe I really like children.” One of the Miss Marple books, 1964’s A Caribbean Mystery, cuts the main character saying that a West Indian hotel employee smiling at her has “such lovely white teeth.”
The most infamous example of post-publication edits to a Christie novel is 1939’s And Then There Were None. Not only did its original title—taken from an old counting rhyme—include a racist epithet, but Christie used the same term many times in the book. The title was considered so offensive even when it was published that it was changed for the 1940 American release, but the book was available in the UK under its original title until 1977, according to The Guardian.
8. Enid Blyton
Enid Blyton, who was born in East London in 1897, began writing as a child. Her best known work, The Famous Five book series, was released between 1942 and 1963 and follows the exploits of a group of children and their dog. In 2010, the series was given a “makeover” by Hodder Children’s Books in which the language was tweaked to sound more contemporary. For example, the phrase mercy me became oh no, and the word fellow was changed to old man. The changes were poorly received and discontinued just six years later.
The series had also been revised in the 1990s, though Tony Summerfield, who runs the Enid Blyton Society, claimed they were “just small word changes, not completely rewritten like the 2010 editions.” He also added, “I am in approval of changing language which has perhaps become offensive or has different meanings, or any racist references. And certain words such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ obviously have different meanings nowadays and it’s fair enough to change them. But changes for the sake of them, I disapprove of.”