The following piece is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Times on 13th July; it is aimed at adult readers. Anne Fine has also written an article explaining the changes to younger readers.
Once a book's published and up on the shelf, the author's finished her job. Right?
Not always. Over a dozen of my own books for young children have just been reprinted in lovely bright new editions, and I've been astonished at the sorts of changes I suddenly decided I wanted to make. My first thought was to leave them exactly as they were written, some as long as thirty years ago. After all, I have six adult novels on the shelves, and wouldn't dream of going at those with a red pen just because government departments have changed their names, or some new tranche of human rights has been enshrined in law.
But books for children are different. Along with their principal purpose of offering enchantment, they find themselves, whether or not they choose, playing a larger role. They bring a picture of the world to inexperienced readers. So there are good reasons why, to take the old example, the works of Enid Blyton had to be ruthlessly edited before these books could comfortably be back on the shelves in our supposedly non-sexist, non-racist, more inclusive schools. I defy anyone whose knee-jerk response is to mutter "political correctness" to read one of the stories in the Jolly Story Book I treasured as a child. Matty tells her doll Sambo: "I don't like your black face." He runs away and gets drenched in a storm during which all of the dye in him is washed away. "'Oh!' squealed the pixie in delight. 'You aren't black any more. You've got the dearest, pinkest, kindest face!'" The doll returns to the nursery and general acclaim: "You are a brave doll! You deserved to be made white!"... No wonder he's happy - little pink Sambo!
Writers want readers more than they want to stand by the unthinking insensitivities that make their books unwelcome in a more modern world. What is so wrong with airbrushing the buffoon black prince out the enchanting Dr Dolittle? Hugh Lofting did not set out to write Mein Kampf. He'd more than likely have been the first to offer to wield the knife in order to introduce all his other delightful creations to a generation of new readers. None of the rest of us yet knows which parts of our books are set fair to make future readers shudder. ("They ate meat? Really? Meat from things they shot and kept in pens?") But we are here long enough to see one or two things that already make us a shade uncomfortable, or distance the books unnecessarily from the modern child. Writers for children routinely bring amounts of money up to date in new editions. "I need two and sixpence for school," does not have much of a ring. Sometimes you have to step in to stop a copy-editor suggesting things like "4.567 metres away" when you've talked of "a few yards". (I know why J K Rowling was so supportive of the Metric Martyrs.) And it can usually be done with grace. "A few steps away" is the obvious solution.
Child readers have as much of a sense of history as they need when, as in the fairy tales, or stories set in Roman, Victorian and Edwardian times, the period's downright obvious. Bring forward the story until the fashions and speech patterns are no longer strange, and it's a different story. Children don't scour the front of their books for publication dates, and something written in 1970 or 1980 may mean something very different now.
Take The Granny Project, first published in 1983. As Granny lies dying, the children pass the time remembering the stray remarks she made to their good friends Lavinia and George, the first black neighbours ever to move into the street. "Do you remember how she told Lavinia she must have been standing behind the door when God's angels ironed all the hair out straight?" "She told George he'd been baked too long in the oven!" "She used to call them Piccaninnies!"
By 1990, any Granny still letting drop this sort of thing was not the amiable character I had in mind. This passage, already removed from school editions, has now gone entirely. Is this political correctness? Yes, if that means sensitivity to the world in which we now live. A book given by an adult to a child includes a sort of imprimatur: this is a reasonable way of looking at the world unless the author somehow shows you that the behaviour's unacceptable. And so Celeste, in The Angel of Nitshill Road, no longer stares at the bully's quite appalling playground behaviour and asks, "Poor boy. Is he mental?" She says instead, "Poor boy. Is he touched with the feather of madness?" The book loses nothing, and there is one fewer free-floating insult in the world directed at a vulnerable group with whom the children who read my books now, through inclusion, have more educational connections, and who may well be reading the book themselves.
Sometimes the airbrushing is for other reasons. Let there not be an ugly rush for all the early editions of Bill's New Frock, where Mrs Collins peers at her exasperated, baffled pupil and infelicitously asks, "Bill, are you feeling yourself?" To save the nation's primary school teachers from endless bursts of sniggering, we slid in one useful little word. "Bill, are you feeling quite yourself?"
Some changes are designed merely to pull the novel back in line to what I had before. In the comedy about the horrors of having a tempestuous teenager in the house, The Book of the Banshee, the head teacher gathers the parents to stiffen their sinews about the virtues of sticking together in order to face down their offspring's determined and perennial claims that "Everyone else is allowed to do it." "Nobody smokes. Nobody drinks. And nobody goes to the discoteque!" Has anyone over twelve been to a discoteque lately? They're afternoons with lemonade in parish halls. So that's been changed to 'clubs and bars' simply to keep the meaning. For the same reason, the midwife in On the Summerhouse Steps has been upgraded from a bicycle to a car, and my young heroine, thirty years on, looks forward to chocolate fudge cake. If I had stuck with her old chocolate biscuits, what a sad sack she'd seem today.
What about style? An author's way of writing does alter over the years. I've become leaner and meaner with the words and wasn't sorry to take a good few 'very's and 'quite's out of my earlier books. And when I came across my third 'he looked for all the world as if...' I not only excised it, but took a vow never to use this particular verbal affectation again.
How do you know when you have gone too far, cutting and slashing? One of the things I've learned from being edited by others over the years is that, when you take something out that you want back, it is the first thing on your mind when you wake in the morning. If you've forgotten it already, then you are happy let it go. Books are like children in that you can smarten them up and cut their hair - even get their teeth fixed - and they're the better for it. Only when you find yourself tempted to start shaving off their limbs do you have to worry.
The only hard choice was a curious one. I'm still not sure I made the right decision. In Anneli the Art Hater, Mrs Pears explains how you can learn about the past from paintings: what foods the people ate, the clothes they wore, the ways they lived. "The Spanish princesses had real live dwarves for pets."
I hesitated before taking that line out. I know that even in the first edition, written in 1985, Anneli's response is a shocked, "That's terrible." But I decided that, if I were writing this book today for readers this young, this isn't an example I would choose. We do not use the word 'dwarves' now, apart from in fairy tales, very much cushioned and distanced by time. We have increasing numbers of children in our schools with a whole range of physical and mental disabilities. Why should I run the risk of hurting any child's feelings when there are plenty of other examples Mrs Pears can pick to make her point? (And there's no way I'm going to try and work the phrase 'persons of restricted growth' into a glancing reference to an old painting.)
Which is the real version? Who's to say? The originals are the ones I myself would save from a fire. I rather hope the newer versions are the ones my readers would take with them to desert islands. But it has been a cheering and instructive task. If it has shown me one thing very clearly, it is that in some ways my readers live in a far kinder and more sensitive world than that of thirty years ago, when I began to write.