In early December 2020, news outlets reported on a statement made by the Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC). At some point, Roald Dahl’s family quietly issued an apology on the official Roald Dahl website, denouncing the famous children’s author’s anti-Semitic views and statements. They made it clear they do not condone Dahl’s views, and they lament the “lasting and understanding hurt” these comments may have caused the Jewish community. The official statement also implies that his prejudicial comments were not in keeping with the beloved man they knew, even though Dahl’s comments were made very publicly and with no remorse, even towards the end of his life.
The Jewish community responded, with various takes on the apology. The consensus, however, was that the apology, while appreciated and necessary, was long overdue (Dahl died in 1990), and the statement’s conjunction with a $1 billion Netflix deal for the movie rights to 16 of Dahl’s books was rather disappointing.
A Tarnished Legacy
I remember reading Matilda when I was about 9. My family was driving to my grandparents’ house, on what I viewed to be the most boring stretch of highway known to man. There was nothing for me to do but read, so I swiped my brother’s tattered copy of the Dahl classic. During that 4 hour drive, I plowed through the story. I delighted in the connection I felt with Matilda and her love for literature. I laughed aloud at her clever manipulation of the antagonistic grown ups, especially the terrible Ms. Trunchbull. And to this day, I yearn to live in Ms. Honey’s tiny cottage covered in honeysuckles. Matilda quickly became one of my favorite books and even today, is cemented as that “one book”, the story that invited me to dive into the world of books and reading.
Needless to say, I was saddened to learn about Dahl’s anti-Semitic views and his unapologetic bigoted comments. As a child, I didn’t separate my love of Dahl’s books from Dahl himself, so I idolized him as this paragon of children’s literature and champion of childhood whimsy. As an adult, I – and I think many people – have wrestled with the idea that loving a creator’s works does not equal loving the creator. In another recent example of this notion is separating J.K. Rowling’s recent transphobic remarks from the immersive and fantastical world she created in the Harry Potter series. I love Harry Potter and Matilda (and many of Dahl’s other books); I do not love their creators’ harmful and intolerant viewpoints.
Condemning without Cancelling
As we’ve recently learned from the attack on the United States Capitol by a group of white supremacists, our words have power. Our words have consequences. Our words have an impact on the culture. Certain statements from government officials, though not directly supporting the attack, certainly insinuated there was a reason to object to the election certification taking place. And those words led to abhorrent actions. Our words matter. And Dahl’s comments, though made decades ago, still matter. His harmful words give support to rhetoric and a movement that is unacceptable.
So, what can we do? How can we, the consumers and propagators of good books, express our unequivocal condemnation of Dahl’s unacceptable words, without supporting censorship or cancel culture? Removing Dahl’s books from the shelves or refusing to purchase or teach his stories is not the answer. I think Roald Dahl’s family has made a start. An apology for his words, though they themselves did not speak them, is an encouraging first step. A better first step would have been to make a public statement, rather than place the apology in an obscure area on the RDSC website. On a more local scale, libraries can support this by ensuring their library policy clearly states that hateful speech and conduct is a violation of said policy, and will not be tolerated in the library.
But action must follow words. As a spokesman for the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism pointed out, “It is a shame that the estate has seen fit merely to apologise for Dahl’s antisemitism rather than to use its substantial means to do anything about it.” The RDSC proudly mentions several charitable organizations that it supports on its website. Why not also use that space to both denounce the author’s views and pledge monetary reparations to Jewish synagogues, schools, or organizations that fight anti-Semitism?
Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, pointed out in her official statement that the family should also consider restating the apology on September 13th, Roald Dahl Day.
“As well as recognising his undeniable impact on children’s literature, teaching of Dahl’s books should also be used as an opportunity for young people to learn about his intolerant views.”
Again, on the more local level, libraries and schools can, and should, still promote stories like Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while at the same time, use his stories as a bridge to teach students about the harmful nature of even one man’s bigoted comments.
Rebecca holds an MLIS from the University of North Texas and is a former teacher and school library consultant. Though not currently working in a library, she continues to fight against censorship and advocate for intellectual freedom rights, especially for children’s literature. When she’s not wrangling her two children, Rebecca enjoys reading, running, writing, and roaming the world.