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Posted by Kate, March 22, 2011

Is it ever right to “update” children’s books?

Yesterday, The Bookseller carried the story that Jacqueline Wilson was to update E Nesbit’s Five Children and It.

There are a few comments on the site, as you’ll see.

On Twitter, immediately after having read the story, I said that I felt uncomfortable with this, but that I was not sure why.

If you were arguing the case for “updating”, you’d say, I think (aside from the obvious commercial reasons for the publisher and the author involved), that updating drives interest in the original, which will continue to exist for anyone who’s interested. At the same time, updating makes a plot concept that has lasted for years accessible to children who might not otherwise read the original. It might also result in something new with real merit in its own right.

West Side Story, an “updated” version of Romeo and Juliet, is a great film and musical. In the loosest possible way, Charlie and Lola stories are “updates” of My Naughty Little Sister (in that we are observing the silliness and misadventures of a younger sibling through the eyes of an older one) and they are really great additions to the picture book genre. If we are being strict about it, we’ve “updated” the story of The Three Little Pigs, which has its origins in an oral story that crystalised in its published chinny-chin-chin form only twelve years before the publication of Five Children and It) in our app version, which includes, for example, a wolf in a delivery van.

And there’s a whole area of “updating” to remove offensive material that is unacceptable today. I republished Just William when I ran Macmillan Children’s Books and excised all of the 1935 story, William and the Nasties , in which William suspects a Jewish shopkeeper of dishonesty and forms a mob to evict him. I also read my childen Little Babaji but not Little Black Sambo, the story on which it’s based. I remember a conversation with Philip Ardagh who argued strongly for the republication, with judicious excisions, of Doctor Doolittle. Hugh Lofting’s estate agreed to the removal of (African) Prince Bumbo, a fairly peripheral character who would white-up and get English expressions just a bit wrong. Philip Argues that it’s worth excising Prince Bumbo on the basis that it still allows children to enjoy Gub-Gub the pig and other Doolittle delights, of which they’d be deprived if publishers baulked at Prince Bumbo.

If you were arguing the case against updating books, your main point would be that it doesn’t require updating: it’s fine as it is, and contemporary children will learn vocabulary and historical information in a highly-palatable form by immersing themselves in the narrative.

When I mentioned the “updating” of Five Children and It on Twitter, asking if I was wrong to feel uncomfortable about it, the responses I got were uniformly negative. Here are a few of them:

@clinestar said, “It’s a classic. Doesn’t need ‘updating’. Change title, plot, characters then its ok – Romeo and Juliet becomes West Side Story.”

@AnabelMarsh said, “Don’t agree with updating Five Children & It. Loved E Nesbit when young. Better to write new stories and leave old ones alone.”

@Jessisreading80 said, “The concept of ‘updating’ children’s books is . (Clutches original E Nesbits to chest and backs away.)”

@DavidGrimstone said, “It’s completely ridiculous. We seem to have plunged into the film industry’s habit of reworking instead of creating.. about 20 hours ago via web in reply to NosyCrow

@marymayf said, “Doesn’t seem right to tamper with it. Why does it need updating?”

@tombonnick said, “That seems awfully presumptuous, even for someone as good as Wilson.”

The announcement reminded me of The Bookseller’s report of something else a few months ago: the updating of the language in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.

Having thought about this overnight, I realise that I care more about the updating of the language in Enid Blyton than I care about the “updating” of Five Children and It

When the language of the Enid Blyton books is updated, the originals will, as I understand it, just not exist anymore. Once the “very subtle changes have been made to remove the barriers that stood between readers and the story”, the original text will be eclipsed by the new one. “She must be jolly lonely all by herself” will become “She must get lonely all by herself.”

Lucy Mangan says this with more wit and depth than me.

But in the case of Five Children and It, the original will remain. It all depends what Jacqueline Wilson does, but part of me – ahem – thinks that this was a rather clever ruse of Puffin’s to make the borrowing of an out-of-copyright storyline look more exciting than it might otherwise be. Jaqueline Wilson has talked about the challenge of writing “a contemporary version of Five Children and It“. If Wilson’s book has a different title and different characters in a different setting doing different things through a different magical mechanism then it is to Five Children and It more or less what West Side Story is to Romeo and Juliet… and I feel pretty relaxed about it.

And I think it’s OK to suppress stand-alone stories from Just William books if they’re offensive, on the basis that that’s not rewriting. I personally feel a bit more worried about excising something – like Prince Bumbo – from a book that otherwise remains the same: that feels to me as if it is rewriting.

But writing over a text to alter it subtly so that the original doesn’t exist in its integrity – perhaps a flawed integrity – that feels more of a problem to me.

(Somewhere I should have said “palimpsest” in this post, but I just didn’t get round to it. And somewhere, there’s a point to be made about how the new illustration of classics – whether it’s Quentin Blake illustrating the cover of Five Children and It (and his picture of the Psammead illustrates this post) or Lauren Childs reinventing Pippi Longstocking – is a kind of “updating”… but this post doesn’t quite make it.)