Voices: I’m a ‘sensitivity reader’ – this is what Puffin failed to grasp on Roald Dahl

If there is one thing I truly believe in, it’s the power of debate. And this is something Puffin UK has provided in spades over the last week. The news that the publisher had decided to edit the work of Roald Dahl sparked national outrage, from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace – everyone had an opinion.

Now, Puffin’s original decision has been reversed (or more accurately, amended) and the books will continue to exist in their original form – alongside newly edited versions.

As a children’s author and sensitivity reader, I’ve followed the debate closely. When the Queen Consort urged writers to “remain true to your calling, unimpeded by those who may wish to curb the freedom of your expression”, I felt the need to defend the role of sensitivity readers, who aren’t here for limited creativity but to collaborate with writers and help them understand things outside of their lived experiences.

Yet I disagree with Puffin’s approach to editing the work of Dahl. To take a historic manuscript that is so obviously of its time and try to paper over the cracks seems extremely shortsighted.

What Puffin failed to grasp is the golden opportunity to embrace and encourage critical thinking in children. And now, though they’ve conceded they will be publishing both the original and edited versions, it is my opinion that the publisher has yet again missed a crucial chance to critically engage with young readers.

Instead of editing Dahl’s language and applying a fresh layer of paint to what some may consider an already crumbling facade, why not add to it and place it within its context? Instead of publishing the books in their original form, why not accompany that text with questions that might ignite conversation?

Dahl’s books are important to many parents who read and loved them as children. And now, with the benefit of hindsight, we are able to use them as material to think further. If we disagree with terms like “fat” and “ugly”, we’re able to show our children how much society has evolved. We can do our best by our kids and explain why we no longer use certain terms and how words have the power to exclude or wound.

There’s no better time to engage with children than when reading. No better time to interrogate how damaging the word “ugly” can be and discuss why it’s unkind; or to explain why people all over the world speak unique languages and how that doesn’t make them weird.

These conversations are important. The way society progresses is a journey that kids need to understand and deserve to feel a part of. The idea that things are moving forward; that people are developing at different speeds (or in some cases, are determined to slow it down for everyone) is key for their understanding of the world and place in it.

Where we came from, where we are heading and how we are going to get there is part of their story too. And books, toys and films provide daily opportunities to discuss sensitive topics in an age-appropriate way. Let’s embrace their natural curiosity.

We can’t wrap our kids up in cotton wool, or sanitise life for them. What we can do is equip them with the skills to deal with situations that come up in a way that makes them more aware. That gives them ownership and choices about who they want to be and how they want to show up in the world.

There are amazing new books being released every day. Books that are beautifully written, diverse, inclusive and relevant to the world our children live in.

We don’t need to cancel the things that no longer resonate with us. We can either engage with them critically or opt to move away.