I was talking with the lovely author Laurel Snyder recently about her book, Any Which Wall (a thoroughly modern Edward Eager homage I enjoyed very much). I can’t remember how we got on the subject, but she mentioned that after it was published, she found things she wished she had written differently; I think she said she even has notes in her copy about what she would have changed.
I’m sure this is common among writers. “Actually, some authors really do that,” I told her.
Madeleine L’Engle was the first one who came to mind. Her first young adult novel, And Both Were Young (it’s really good--takes place in a Swiss boarding school, lots of fun stuff about skiing), was published in 1949. In 1983, she released a newly-edited version, which, she says in the foreword, is more accurate to the book she wrote. The 1949 editor insisted she tone down the main character’s grief over her mother’s death, the gentle romance between the teenagers, and the woman who’s after Philippa’s widower father.
I’ll be honest: I like the original a lot better. And when I say “original”, I mean what was published first. I think it’s sharper, clearer, more even in tone. Of course, it’s also what I read (and internalized: I read it many times) first.
I’m not sure how many times L’Engle did this in smaller ways. When I was re-reading a new-to-me copy of her book The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas, I kept thinking “huh. I don’t remember it that way”. On comparison, I discovered several small differences in the text between the edition of this book I knew and the one I own now. I don’t know why L’Engle or the editors might have made these changes, or which is the original, or which L’Engle might say was more authentic.
PL Travers did it in Mary Poppins. She has a chapter where Jane, Michael, and Mary Poppins go time/space traveling with the help of a compass. They visit the four corners of the world, and meet stereotypical people from the north (“Eskimos”), south (Africans), east (Chinese people), and west (American Indians, or, as many people in England call them even now, “Red Indians”). The chapter is charming in structure, but the stereotypes are awful. They’re worse than what you’re imagining right now. In 1981, Travers revised the chapter completely, having them meet animals in each corner instead. The writing isn’t as good as it was in the original, which is unfortunate but not surprising. When this chapter of Mary Poppins comes up in discussion, I always ask the same question: if you were the author, wouldn’t you be embarrassed? Wouldn’t you welcome the chance of a rewrite? (Amazingly, the original illustrator, Mary Shepard, was also around to do new illustrations for the chapter.) And Roald Dahl did something similar for the American edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; for some reason that’s not as well-known, though the book is more famous. In the original, the Oompa Loompas are pretty much happy lazy African slaves. I’m not kidding.
Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature has an interesting post discussing a passage from the book Dear Genius, in which editor Ursula Nordstrom talks about a small change Laura Ingalls Wilder agreed to make to a new edition of Little House on the Prairie--agreed wholeheartedly. While I don’t agree with the suggestion that the publisher might have stopped publishing the book entirely instead, I think it’s an interesting point to wonder what else Wilder might have changed in this book and her other books. Certainly her intent was never to depersonalize American Indians.
What else might Madeleine L’Engle have changed in her books? Did she mean for A House Like a Lotus to be underminingly homophobic? I don’t really think so. After she became a Christian, did she think back on her early books and wish she had written things differently? Would Jean Webster take the eugenicism out of Dear Enemy (sequel to Daddy Long Legs)? Would Ann M. Martin surgically remove Mallory Pike from the Babysitters Club? (Actually, she did eventually send Mallory to boarding school, to the great relief of all.)
We’ve posted recently about the ways Scholastic Book Fairs has asked authors to edit their books to make them “safe” for the school market. (Laurie pointed out elsewhere the funniest example of this: in Lois Lowry’s Anastasia On Her Own, Freddie Valente is changed in the [edit: not Scholastic's fault this time] Weekly Reader edition from a bra-snapper to a hair-puller. I guess bras are mature content, just like gay parents.) Laurie urged authors not to make changes in content after their books are published, at least not for Scholastic Book Fairs’s reasoning. What do you think? When is it okay for an author to change something, and when should the book be let stand as is?