Why are children's books so white

Modernized Children's Books: Very Ordinary Corrections

A bitter dispute has broken out over subsequent changes to children's books. Such interventions are by no means exceptional, they are widely used.

Children have always read modernized versions of the classics without being noticed. Image: dpa

Who still knows what the word “godfather” means or what a “auntie” is? Who knows that “prostitute” used to be a common word for a young girl - like “woman” for “woman”? And do such words make sense in today's children's books?

Since the taz reported four weeks ago that the term “negro” was to be deleted from the new edition of “Little Witch” by Otfried Preussler, a heated argument has raged. The language protectors go on the barricades, insist on compliance and want to put the word under species protection. Black Germans in particular feel discriminated against as a result.

The authors of children's books are also divided. The 76-year-old children's book author Christine Nöstlinger considers the politically correct rewriting of children's book classics to be "nonsense". "You would never mess into adult literature like that," said the Vienna-based writer and creator of the "Stories of Franz" in Berlin Daily mirror. Her colleague Paul Maar, creator of “Sams”, thinks the deletion of the N-word from “Little Witch” and “Pippi Longstocking” is correct. "Sometimes political correctness really goes too far for me," he confessed on Deutschlandfunk.

Stick to the changes

The dispute is mainly about the N-word. The Thienemann Verlag, in which the children's book appears, wants, in consultation with the author, to replace other old-fashioned words such as “blueness” (for spanking) and “hold on” (for hurrying up) from the 1950s with new, contemporary expressions. However, these corrections are almost completely lost. And also the fact that changing the plot, language or individual words in children's and young people's books is more the rule than the exception.

Hardly anyone should read Grimm's fairy tales to their children in the original. Many prefer the Disney adaptations, for example. Other famous stories are also available mainly in abridged and simplified editions for the nursery.

Daniel Defoe's novel "Robinson Crusoe", which appeared in 1719, was reduced to an adventure novel shortly after its publication. The same applies to “Gulliver's Travels” by the Irish author Jonathan Swift from 1726. Only the first two parts are known to everyone, his travels to the land of giants and to that of the Lilliputians. The story of "Oliver Twist" is known to most as a musical or a children's film. In later editions, Charles Dickens himself softened the anti-Semitic undertones of the story, which appeared for the first time as a magazine series from 1837 to 1839, but they were mostly completely erased from later editions and the film adaptations. The Jewish fence Fagin, who trains the orphan boy to be a thief, plays a key role in the book.

Pippi corrected several times

This begs the question: What makes a children's book a timeless work of art? Is it the gripping story, the exciting language - or the aura of the original? This is not a purely German discussion. From the English translations of “Pippi Longstocking” the word “negro” was deleted or replaced as early as the 1950s. The German version, on the other hand, was revised between 1986 and 1996 in order to bring it back closer to the Swedish original. Annika's brother got his original name "Tommy" back. In 1949 he was christened “Thomas” in Germany in order to avoid associations with the British occupying power at the time. The British were then called "Tommy". In the Swedish original, "Michel from Lönneberga" is called Emil by the way. However, this name was already used in Germany: by "Emil and the Detectives" by Erich Kästner.

Its books are still published in their original version today. "Of course you can tell in Erich Kästner's books that they were not written in 2013," says Frauke Wedler-Zinn from Dressler Verlag in Hamburg, which publishes Erich Kästner's books. “Children can see that this is not the world that surrounds them,” she believes. "When you travel around the world with Doctor Doolittle, it's a different world than when you travel with TUI".

In the case of new editions, the publisher will add notes in advance. In an edition published in 2012 for the film adaptation of “Huckleberry Finn”, it says: “The use of the term“ negro ”in this book is solely due to the faithfulness of the original. A reduction is not intended in any way. "

Established practice

At Thienemann Verlag in Stuttgart, after the fuss about “The Little Witch”, they would prefer not to comment on the subject at all. "Subsequent changes are common practice in the literature business," Thienemann spokeswoman Svea Unbehaun points out, however. "Most of the time, they didn't stand out because they were often not felt to be so profound."

She gives an example: “While he was still alive, Michael Ende renamed the country“ China ”in his Jim Knopf books to the fictional country“ Mandala ”because he could not identify with the real system in China. In retrospect, changes seemed necessary to him because the political and social conditions had changed. "

Any change, however, requires the consent of the authors, descendants or rights holders - in the case of the “Little Witch” and the “Little Aquarius” the list of suggestions came from the Otfried Preussler family. In “Little Aquarius”, expressions like “laundry ramble” (rinse in soapy water) and “scald out” (rinse with hot water) should be replaced. Most parents cannot explain it to their children because they no longer know it themselves.

However, there were no changes to the new edition of Preussler's “Robber Hotzenplotz” trilogy, which appeared last year. Even with "Jim Knopf" that is not planned. "It wouldn't make sense for content reasons," says Svea Unbehaun from Thienemann Verlag. “Mr. Sleeve is a precocious know-it-all. His verbatim speech characterizes him so that it would destroy the irony of the scene if the passage in which he calls Jim Knopf a "little negro" is deleted. "