By Charly Wilder
Last month German Family Minister Kristina Schröder incited the ire of her fellow conservative politicians when she took aim at politically incorrect content in classic children's literature. In addition to suggesting that God should be gender neutral, she criticized sexist and racist messages in some of these tales too. If she were to read aloud to her daughter from one of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking books, called "Pippi in Taka Tuka Land" in German, she would leave out the word "negro" in order "to protect my child from taking on such expressions," Schröder told the daily newspaper Die Zeit.
Now one of Germany's oldest children's book publishers, Thienemann Verlag, is taking a similar tack, and the reaction has been no less contentious. Its new edition of Otfried Preussler's beloved 1957 tale "The Little Witch" ("Die kleine Hexe") has been amended to remove certain questionable terms, including the word "negro." The decision has sparked heated discussion over how to handle outdated, controversial language in classic children's books.
"As a publisher it's my job to convey classics from one generation to the next," says Klaus Willenberg, the director of Thienemann Verlag. He says he had wanted to amend the text for years, but was only recently able to secure the approval of the late Preussler's daughter. Now many are accusing him of censorship and excessive political correctness.
The passage at the heart of the debate describes a group of children dressed in costume to celebrate Fastnacht -- the pre-Lent carnival observed throughout southern Germany and parts of Austria and Switzerland. "But the two little negroes were not from the circus," it reads. "Nor were the Turks or the Indians. Even the little Chinese girls, the man-eater, the Eskimo women, the desert sheik and the Hottentot chieftan were not from the show booth. No, it was carnival night in the village!"
Otfried Preussler's books have been translated into 55 languages, and more than 50 million copies have been sold worldwide. Some 50,000 copies of "The Little Witch," which follows the story of a 127-year-old "bad witch" determined to turn good, are sold each year, according to the publisher. In the new text, part of a colorized edition that will be released in July by Thienemann Verlag to commemorate the celebrated author's 90th birthday, the children's costumes are no longer ethnic. Other terms -- like "wichsen," which once meant "to polish," but is now more often associated with male masturbation -- have also been removed.
An Attack on Artistic Integrity?
"It's not just about politically incorrect terms such as "negro," but also terms that children no longer understand," says Willenberg, who has since received some 200 angry emails in response to last week's announcement. Several conservative German newspapers, such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Welt, have printed critical editorials of the revisions. They argue that altering a work of literature ruptures its artistic integrity, and that protecting children is not the duty of the publisher, but of parents or teachers, who should explain problematic terms to children.
"Why shouldn't parents have the choice of what to read to their children?" asked Jacques Schuster in an editorial for Die Welt. "Anyone who believes art should be changed in retrospect because it contradicts the prevailing morality must have been pleased in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan."
"I'm not saying that Preussler was racist, but that sentence was always racist," said Mekonnen Mesghena, the head of the Migration and Diversity department at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a Berlin-based think tank. It was Mesghena's letter to the Thienemann Verlag that put the revision into motion. A naturalized German citizen who emigrated at the age of 14 from war-torn Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, Mesghena says he was surprised to come across the passage while reading "The Little Witch" to his seven-year-old daughter Timmit.
"It was simply a shock to me to have such a popular book like this on the market," he says. "She has all these friends around her, the majority white Germans, but some Turkish and Asian children as well. I couldn't imagine what it would be like if they read it together. It's a disgusting situation."
An 'Inherently Tricky' Undertaking
This isn't a new debate in Germany. In 2009, the Hamburg publishing house Friedrich Oetinger printed a new version of "Pippi Longstocking" in which her father was changed from the "Negro King" to the "South Sea King." In previous editions, the publisher had kept the original text but included a footnote explaining that the terminology is no longer in use, a method now suggested in the current debate as an alternative to censorship.
"I find it inherently tricky to intervene in literary texts," says Julia Lentge, a spokesperson for the Munich-based Arbeitskreis für Jugendliteratur, the state-sponsored umbrella organization responsible for the German Children's Literature Award, which was bestowed upon "The Little Witch" in 1958. Though she says she's not necessarily opposed to this particular revision, she also doesn't think it should set a precedent. It would be "such a pity if the original text were no longer available," she adds.
The question of how to deal with racism in classic children's literature is not limited to Germany, of course. In the first edition of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," published in the United States in 1964, the Oompa-Loompas were Pygmies brought by Willy Wonka from Africa in a packing case and forced to work in his factory. For the second edition, published in 1973, they were changed into "rosy-white" creatures with long "golden-brown" hair.
Scottish author Helen Bannerman's 1899 classic "The Story of Little Black Sambo," about a South Indian boy whose wits are pitted against four hungry tigers, was a favorite for half a century before it drew controversy for its resemblance to racist iconography. Both the text and illustrations have since seen major revision, and a politically correct 1996 adaptation by American illustrator Fred Marcellino was a best seller. Yet there are still many classic children's books -- such as the French Babar series, which debuted in 1931 and has been criticized for its colonialist undertones -- that remain in wide circulation in their original form.
Annotation Instead of Revision
"The classics offer a chance to submerge ourselves in another time, in another kind of language, which might sound somewhat disconcerting, but might also be exciting," Lentge says. "I think one should really consider whether instances like this can't be handled by some kind of annotation, a forward or an epilogue by a children's book expert who could put the work in its historical context," she continued.
But this isn't necessarily helpful, says Mesghena. "The notion of commentary is such an academic approach. If you're reading a bedtime story, it's completely absurd that you would read commentary," he argues.
Since Thienemann Verlag announced its revision last week, Mesghena says he has been inundated with more than a hundred angry emails.
"The lowest form of response is people saying, 'Who are you? You were not born here. You come here and want to change our society'," he says. "Then there are people who say I'm inserting race into a text that never had those intentions. But terminology is never neutral. It shows the structure of dominance. It's not about intentions. That was my first letter to the publisher, that this is racist. This is where racism starts," says Mesghena. "And if I didn't have the confidence before that parents would take the responsibility to properly explain these terms to their children, I have far less confidence now."
Yet both Mesghena and Klaus Willenberg of Thienemann Verlag say that not all of the responses they've received have been negative.
"We have also received some letters that approve of our decision, because now Preussler's wonderful stories can be read by children of today and tomorrow," says Willenberg, who plans to scour all the classic children's titles owned by the publishing house and rid them of discriminatory language.
"I think because of Germany's history, racism is such a loaded issue," Mesghena adds. "So just the fact that so many people are willing to talk about race so openly is a positive thing."
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