IPA’s Prix Voltaire Deadline Week: Censorship, Bannings

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Amid final nominations for IPA’s Prix Voltaire, book bannings and charges of censorship raise new controversies in children’s content.

Covers of children’s books on PEN America’s list, ‘Most Banned Picture Books of the 2021-2022 School Year.’ Image: PEN America

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Prix Voltaire Nomination Deadline: February 24
With its deadline for 2023 nominations coming Friday (February 24), the International Publishers Association‘s (IPA) Prix Voltaire is gaining resonance from a new concern for book publishing professionals: the censorship and bannings of children’s books.

The Prix Voltaire, as Publishing Perspectives readers know, honors publishing professionals for valor in the face of oppression—efforts, made often by state entities, to limit the freedom to publish, the book business’ equivalent of freedom of expression.

And the double debate now swirling around censorship and bannings in children’s books is a timely one for the start on March 6 of Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the world’s largest and most influential trade show in young people’s literature.

Honorees of the Prix Voltaire have included imprisoned publishers, and at least two who lost their lives. The controversy now swirling around the idea of altering older texts to conform with selected contemporary sensibilities, however, is no more subtle than the self-censorship caused by state oppression in so many instances, something always discussed around the Prix Voltaire’s programming.

What’s more, the outright banning of books for children—or for readers of any age—is, on its face, counter to the spirit and importance of the freedom to publish.

In Danica Kirka’s article for the Associated Press in London, it’s reported that “Critics are accusing the British publisher of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books of censorship after it removed colorful language from works such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda to make them more acceptable to modern readers.” That publisher is a widely regarded one. Puffin Books is a children’s book division of Penguin Random House UK, and the changes to the Dahl texts were first reported by England’s Daily Telegraph.

From Kirka’s AP article, a couple of instances:

  • “Augustus Gloop, Charlie’s gluttonous antagonist in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which originally was published in 1964, is no longer ‘enormously fat,’ just ‘enormous.’
  • “The word black was removed from the description of the terrible tractors in 1970’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The machines are now simply ‘murderous, brutal-looking monsters.'”

In short, the types of changes made in these texts appear to be efforts in “political correctness,” altering phrases and references that current social concerns may make less palatable they may have seemed in earlier decades. These are the kinds of efforts that inevitably are disparaged by the far right as “woke,” the current term used to indicate an overly zealous regard for liberal attempts at politically correct behavior.

‘Hundreds of Changes’

In today’s (February 20) edition of the Wall Street Journal, Max Colchester and David Luhnow write of “hundreds of changes” made to the texts of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other children’s books. Rebukes are coming in not only from the book business but also from government offices. Colchester and Luhnow quote prime minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman saying today, ” that ‘you should not gobblefunk around with words,’ using a word coined by Mr. Dahl and used in his book BFG that means roughly ‘to tinker.'”

The rights to the Dahl books are owned by The Roald Dahl Story Company, which was acquired in 2021 by Netflix. Luhnow and Colchester report that Netflix says the changes were made prior to its acquisition.

Sarah Shaffi, Kevin Rawlinson, and Mabel Banfield-Nwachi at The Guardian today write, “References to people being fat are also among the edits, which were made in conjunction with Inclusive Minds, a ‘collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature.’ The Roald Dahl Story Company has said ‘it’s not unusual to review the language’ during a new print run and any changes were ‘small and carefully considered.'”

“It opens up a very problematic window, to go in and apply the standards of today, to rewrite traditional literature.”Suzanne Nossel, PEN America, to CNN's Jim Acosta

Inclusive Minds characterizes itself on its site as “an organization that works with the children’s book world to support them in authentic representation, primarily by connecting those in the industry with those who have lived experience of any or multiple facets of diversity. ”

Its self-descriptive text says, “Inclusive Minds does not edit or rewrite texts, but provides book creators with valuable insight from people with the relevant lived experience that they can take into consideration in the wider process of writing and editing.” (Those italics are the site’s.)

“Over the years,” the site’s text reads, “many children’s book publishers in the UK—from small independents to members of the big five publishing houses—have contacted us to be connected with our network of Inclusion Ambassadors. This is a network of young people with many different lived experiences who are willing to share their insight to help them in the process of creating authentically—and often incidentally—inclusive books. They are not sensitivity readers.”

The organization says that it partners with England’s Booksellers Association, Publishers Association, the Independent Publishers Guild (IPG), and Letterbox Library.

PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel: ‘A Mistake’

In the United States, Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America—whose tweet above had prompted Salman Rushdie’s response—appeared Sunday (February 19) on CNN Newsroom with Jim Acosta. CNN’s article on the Dahl controversy is written by Lianne Kolirin of CNN London.

“I think it’s a mistake,” Nossel told Acosta when asked her opinion of these alterations to the late Roald Dahl’s texts.

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel is interviewed by Jim Acosta on Feburary 19 on ‘CNN Newsroom With Jim Acosta.’ Image: CNN

“I think the impulse here is probably a noble one,” she said. “They’re trying to protect kids from stereotyping, and prevent kids from being made to feel bad if they’re overweight or have other characteristics that might be triggered by these books. But in doing so, they’ve excised and nipped and tucked and added things, added gratuitous lines that Roald Dahl never wrote.

“It opens up a very problematic window,” Nossel said, “… to go in and apply the standards of today, to rewrite traditional literature. Think about how that power might be misused.”

As Acosta pointed out, Nossel has also said that there may well be a “teachable moment” in such “classic” writings from the near past. Nossel said that in dealing with older literature in today’s classrooms, handling traditions and sensibilities from a previous era “can be done by talking about it, contextualizing it … This notion that that can be scrubbed clean out of children’s books is really wrong-headed.”

PEN America’s ‘Most Banned Picture Books’

Nossel and Acosta also looked at recent escalations of book bannings in the States, and PEN America on Tuesday (February 14), issued a look at children’s picture books that were banned in the most recent full school year.

In The Most Banned Picture Books of the 2021-2022 School Year, Lisa Tolin points out that the most-banned general school books of the year (PEN’s list is here) “were primarily young adult or adult titles. But picture books for the youngest readers were not spared, with 317 titles banned.”

Most of the banned picture books, she writes, feature “a protagonist of color or characters who reflect the LGBTQ+ experience.” Banned titles that top PEN America’s list:

Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, by Rob Sanders and Steve Salerno, a book tied with two others for top place:  I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings, and Shelagh McNicholas; and And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell, Justin Richardson, and Henry Cole.

Each of these three books were banned in five instances to share the No. 1 banned picture books category.

The first, of course, refers to LGTBQ issues, while I Am Jazz features a transgender child based on the real-life experiences of the transgender activist Jazz Jennings. The third features two male penguins at a zoo who adopt a baby penguin.

The full list of most-banned picture books comes to 19 titles because there were ties in so many cases, many of these books receiving multiple bannings in the United States.

The Prix Voltaire and Publisher Lokman Slim

And meanwhile, as nominators put forward candidates for the 2023 Prix Voltaire, IPA president Karine Pansa earlier this month wrote a short tribute, marking February 3 as the second anniversary of the assassination of publisher Lokman Slim in Lebanon.

Rasha Al Ameer

Slim’s sister and co-publisher Rasha Al Ameer was given the 2021 Prix Voltaire, proving herself perhaps the most eloquent laureate of the award yet and leading a commemoration, February 3 to 5 in Beirut, of the murder of her brother.

Called “Justice Even If the Heavens Fall,” the program from the commemoration is listed here and included programming in which Slim’s activism and thinking were recalled and revisited in discussions, declarations, and music.

In an interesting development, a new award, the Lokman Slim Laurels, has been created to be conferred on people “who put the quest for truth and memory at the heart of their work,” an offshoot of the Prix Voltaire’s mission to elevate the sacrifices and courage of those who have stared down censorship and book bannings—and worse—to promote the freedom of expression and the right to publish.

Any individual, group or organization can nominate a publisher for the Prix Voltaire, a publisher being defined as an individual, collective or organization that provides others with the means to share their ideas in written form, including  on digital platforms. Nominees will have recently published controversial works amid pressure,  threats, intimidation. or harassment. Alternatively, they may be publishers with a distinguished  record over many years of upholding the freedom to publish and freedom of expression.

Nominations are to be submitted by email using the application form to the IPA at prix voltaire@internationalpublishers.org .

The closing date for nominations is February 24, after which the nine publishing professionals who make up the IPA Freedom to Publish Committee will select a longlist before agreeing on a  shortlist and selecting the 2023 laureate.

The 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire ceremony is scheduled to take place at the World Expression Forum (WEXFO) in Lillehammer, May 22 and 23.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the IPA Prix Voltaire is hereMore coverage of the International Publishers Association is here. More from us on book-banning is here, more on censorship is here, and more on the freedom to publish is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s global media partner.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.