OPINION - Censoring children’s books is an insult to their intelligence
AS so often, Roald Dahl (unexpurgated) put it best. In The Twits, prior to its bowdlerisation by Puffin Books, he observed of Mrs Twit: “Have you ever seen a woman with an uglier face than that? I doubt it. But the funny thing is that Mrs Twit wasn’t born ugly. She’d had quite a nice face when she was young. The ugliness had grown upon her year by year as she got older.
“Why would that happen? I’ll tell you why. If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier.”
Well, that was before Mrs Twit was altered by the Puffin censors so that she was no longer “ugly and beastly”, just beastly. (Give it time before someone takes out that adjective too, on the ground it’s unfair to beasts.) But nowadays the use of appearances as visual shorthand is becoming problematic. This weekend, the author Anthony Horowitz observed that “it has become, recenty, a hot potato... that you use physicality to denote evil...And I’m doing it less now. The villains in my new book are all perfectly ordinary looking.”
That’s the way contemporary censorship works. It doesn’t just bowdlerise existing works; the rules get internalised by authors, to save trouble.
In this case, making ugliness neutral rather than a signifier of character is bad for fiction. Children get enormous satisfaction from scary-looking villains and handsome heroes. It speaks to something fundamental in our psyche.
Appearances count, for instance, when a character is fat. Not all fat people eat too much, but gluttony usually ends in obesity. Thus fat Augustus Gloop is a greedy pig. Miss Trunchbull has a “cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes” because she is cruel and arrogant. To make Miss Trunchbull look like Miss Honey would be all wrong.
And yet children can take on board that appearances may be deceptive. Beauty and the Beast is premised on the notion that Beauty is beautiful because she is good but the Beast is less beastly than bestial men. As Dahl said, “A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely,” Exactly so.