Friday, November 6, 2009

Oops! I Didn't Mean To Say That.

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?


Kathleen McDade said...

It doesn't always work out very well, does it? Based on your examples, anyway. I think trying to edit LHOP would likely turn out like Mary Poppins did. I'd rather read it as written and discuss the problematic parts.

L'Engle also released an alternate version of The Love Letters (I think it was expanded, but I only read it once). Stephen King released an expanded version of The Stand. I like it. Should authors do this? I'd say only if the additions are as good as the original writing, and if they really add something valuable to the story. Otherwise, blech.

Wendy said...

Oh, I think an edited LHOP would turn out MUCH worse than Mary Poppins; the chapter in Mary Poppins is an isolated incident, not woven in with the rest of the story.

Julie said...

What was wrong with Mallory Pike? Isn't having glasses and lots of siblings just as cool as having a sister who's a certified genius, having a funky sense of style, and hiding candy all over your room?

Anonymous said...

Maybe someone decided that taking the bra-snapping out would make sure no one would get the idea from the book? Hair pulling starts a lot earlier, and is something we share with our primate cousins.

Wendy said...

With apologies to Debbie and anyone else; sometimes the comments on this blog are screwy. Here's what she has to say:

Edits to LHOP... If Nordstrom and Wilder were able to see the need to change "people" to "settlers" it seems to me that if I (or someone) sat down with them and went page-by-page through the book, they'd have to make so many changes that there would be little, if anything, left. It would be a different story, hence, a different book. In effect, they'd have to set LHOP aside and name it something else.

--Debbie Reese

Kathleen McDade said...

I've written and discarded several comments about Madeleine L'Engle and homophobia. It comes up in three books that I know of: A House Like a Lotus, A Severed Wasp, and A Live Coal in the Sea. I can't seem to discuss it without trying to put words in her mouth or attribute thoughts to her, though. It seems like she must have been somewhat conflicted about homosexuality, or maybe some of the people around her were. It's always weirded me out.

LaurieA-B said...

Wendy, ironically, you need to correct something in your post. I suggest noting that it's an edit from the original post, with brackets. The edited edition of Anastasia on Her Own, which I have in front of me, was published by Weekly Reader, not Scholastic. It states on the copyright page, "This book is a presentation of Weekly Reader Books" but does not indicate anywhere that edits were made. I despise it.

While as you know I love the Little House books, I question your statement, "Certainly her intent was never to depersonalize American Indians." I am not a Wilder scholar, but from her novels I don't think that she believed the Native Americans had more right or equal right to the land as the white settlers did; parts of her books support the idea that white settlers had the only right to the land. This may not be depersonalizing, but it's certainly not recognizing them as equal citizens.

Wendy said...

Edit made. I think there's probably a different word for that from depersonalizing; Debbie's point (which, of course, I don't quote here) is about them actually being referred to as not-people, and about them being described in animalistic terms, which I do think is not something LIW meant to do.

Definitely I don't think she believed the Indians had MORE right to the land, and probably not equal either, but that's another post.

Kathleen, there's also The Small Rain, and maybe some others. What I've said before: "I think Madeleine L'Engle wants to, but doesn't really, 'get' homosexuality." I'm sure she knew lots of gay people, and I suspect she really did think A House Like a Lotus was an open-minded book, but that, too, is another post.

Debbie Reese said...

I don't think Wilder intended to dehumanize American Indians. When that one word choice was pointed out to her, she agreed that it should be changed.

It is not a question of intent, but of socialization. Then and now, Americans are taught to view American Indians in a very narrow way. Unless someone points it out, it goes unnoticed.

(I quit trying to post a comment thru Firefox and am trying Explorer... We'll see if it works. This is an abbreviated post of a longer one that, more than once, disappeared once I hit the "post comment" button.)


Wendy said...

Ugh, we at Six Boxes hate Explorer, but I'm glad it worked. I wish I knew what the problem was.

Lindsay Klaverkamp said...

As a Social Studies teacher, I wish the LHOP had not been edited. What a great learning lesson about the changes in culture in one person't lifetime. In her 80's Laura Ingalls was a different person with more knowledge and experiences. The culture of our country had changed and our perceptions and ideas about how native americans and the settlement of our country happened. Leaving the original text in allows for a discussion of those changes. Changing the text changes the history.

Wendy said...

Lindsay, for me, this was more a copy-editing mistake than anything else; that's why it doesn't bother me. And I do think it would have confused me when I was seven and reading this book if left the original way...

CLM said...

In Prelude by L'Engle, which is the juvenile version of the first half of The Small Rain (which I read from my elementary school library), I recall a scene where the lonely heroine is found in bed with another girl at her boarding school. The school administrators are shocked, tell them to stay away from each other, and I remember that Katherine, the heroine, is hurt and confused that the other girl steers clear of her after that. At 9, when I read this book, I couldn't figure out what was going on; it was the heroine's misery that made such an impression on me (I don't think L'Engle's experience of boarding school was very Enid Blyton) and I don't recall whether L'Engle conveyed whether she thought the administrators were overreacting or not.

I do adore And Both Were Young, and agree with Wendy that the edits were not really an improvement (but, of course, I own one of each edition).

Wendy said...

Not in bed, CLM, unless Prelude is more different from The Small Rain than I remember--just embracing and crying together. My feeling is that M L'E conveys that she thinks the admin was overreacting, but only because they weren't actually doing anything "wrong".