Why Changing Literature to Fit Your Needs is the Lazy Way Out

Back in December 2013, I read an article on Slate titled, “Bilbo Baggins Is a Girl: Until children’s books catch up to our girls, rewrite them.” The author’s intentions are pure: many older children’s books—including classics like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbitdon’t portray women in a flattering light…if, indeed, they mention them at all. So, for her daughter, Bilbo Baggins is a girl, and Susan Pevensie of The Chronicles of Narnia becomes a boy, providing a convenient fix for the “infamous line about Susan’s abandoning Narnia for nylons and lipstick and invitations.”

More recently, an article on AATTP.org details how a conservative Christian mother rewrote Harry Potter for her children so they won’t turn into witches. (Yes, seriously.) She has posted the completed chapters of her version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on a popular fanfiction site, and they have apparently become relatively popular with the conservative Christian set. They contain such gems as:

“I don’t have a mommy or daddy,” Harry replied sadly; and looked at his raggedy, old shoes that were blue.

and

Aunt Petunia smacked her hands over Harry’s young ears; and her voice was sickly sweet when she said, “Thank you very much for your concern, sir, but he does not need your religion, he has science and socialism and birthdays. Haven’t you heard of Evolution? I have a very good textbook on Evolution that I could give you on it if you would like to learn things.”

Hermione_eye_roll lunch-alone-1 EyeRollMaryPoppins

So many eyeroll gifs—I can’t choose just one!

Now, obviously one of these articles is a lot more laughable than the other. One describes a well-intentioned woman attempting to provide some positive female role models for her daughter, where before they were few and far between. The other describes a wingnut who actually thinks her kids are in danger of becoming witches if they read Harry Potter. However, they both commit the same basic crime: changing literature to fit personal agendas.

Changing the events of a story or even changing genders of characters to support a personal agenda, however honorable said agenda might be, is simply taking the easy way out. Ms. Nijhuis, of the first article, wants her daughter to have positive female role models in literature. I understand this impulse and I also understand that positive female role models aren’t always easy to find in classic literature, especially literature fit for children. However, instead of wantonly changing boys to girls and men to women in the course of the story, I think it would be more beneficial to have a conversation with your child about the characters, and why they may or may not be positive role models.

Take Nijhuis’ example about Susan abandoning Narnia for “nylons and lipsticks and invitations.” It’s easy to see how such an assertion is significantly more problematic in the 21st century than it was when C. S. Lewis first wrote it. But that’s exactly why she should talk to her daughter about it instead of glossing over it by changing the essence of the character and removing the line completely. Explaining institutionalized sexism to a kindergartener is surely a daunting task, but how difficult is it to pause at that moment and engage your daughter in a quick dialogue about why she thinks Susan abandoned Narnia? At five years old, she probably doesn’t know what nylons even are, and likely doesn’t understand the implications of Lewis’s statement. Asking her what she thinks about Susan’s abandonment of Narnia is not only important to gauge her understanding of the story, but also to help her begin to understand what sexism is, and that maybe what the author wrote about Susan wasn’t very nice.

It’s a tough lesson for a five-year-old to swallow. Heck, it’s a tough lesson for a lot of adults to swallow. But beginning the conversation early is vital to helping your daughter understand the society she’s growing up in. It’s also important to let her know that it’s just as okay to love being girly as it is to want to be a scientist or an engineer. Just because Lewis’s original connotation was negative doesn’t mean that it has to remain so in your conversations with her.

In another example, Nijhuis renames The Secret Garden’s Dickon to Diana. This one bothers me a little bit more than her changes to Narnia, primarily because there doesn’t seem to be a reason for the change. Mary is already a strong female protagonist; taking Dickon away as a positive male influence seems unnecessary in a story that already lacks positive male figures. Dickon is a great character, and while I don’t think being female necessarily takes away from his greatness, it still feels disingenuous to change the (female!) author’s original intention.

In a way, Nijhuis’ reimagining of classic children’s stories is worse than “Grace Ann’s” complete obliteration of Harry Potter. Most people can laugh at the futility of Grace Ann’s attempt to make Harry Potter into a conservative Christian paradise. But while Nijhuis’ idea is significantly more rational, it’s not any less wrong-headed.

There are many lessons, both good and bad, to be learned from literature. One of the best lessons anyone can take away from literature is the knowledge that there are infinite ways to look at the world. A reader’s dislike of or discomfort with the particular worldview espoused in a book doesn’t entitle them to change it. Instead, they should work to understand the author’s worldview and have a constructive dialogue around it, especially if they’re reading the book to or with their kids.

It’s not going to be easy to tell your daughter that there are people in the world who will look down on her simply because she’s a girl. It won’t be easy to tell her that, for centuries, women were denied the most basic rights, simply because they were women. It will be hard for her to understand, because she will largely be innocent of the world. But reading her classic books like The Chronicles of Narnia and discussing them with her, instead of sugarcoating them, might help her understand both the world in which they were written and the world in which she lives. It won’t be easy. But I think it will be worth it.

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9 thoughts on “Why Changing Literature to Fit Your Needs is the Lazy Way Out

  1. This was a great post. I think it’s important to discuss the way things are, rather than just pretend things are the way you want them to be. I think it could be a worthwhile conversation to have with a child (boy or girl, not just our daughters– let’s get the sons on board, too, from an early age!) about if they think the story would be any different if Bilbo or Harry or Huckleberry were girls.

    • Yes, absolutely! We definitely need to get boys on board as well; thanks for making that point. 🙂

      We also have to remember that judging books written a century+ ago by today’s standards is going to be a fruitless, frustrating endeavor, and it’s frankly sort of unfair.

      (I swear I replied to this comment the day you posted it, but somehow my comment is gone now.)

  2. I think I had seen that article from Slate before – I thought the initial gender-switch was cute and unproblematic because the little girl insisted upon it. I think it would be weird for the mom to not oblige in such a case. I agree with what you say about the Susan example though, as it seems to be more dodging an issue than the Bilbo example.

    Wow, that version of Harry Potter sounds horrible – is that truly for real? That second excerpt seems like a parody of a fundamentalist rewrite of HP.

    • With the Bilbo example, it’s true that her daughter insisted on it, but then the mother took it upon herself to begin changing other male characters to female, which is what annoyed me. I agree that it would have been sort of mean not to go along with the daughter’s insisting that Bilbo is a girl. But to go ahead and change other characters without prompting just rubs me the wrong way.

      And unfortunately…yes. That Harry Potter thing is true. I thought it couldn’t be, but every source I found said it was legit. SIGH.

  3. I think it is disrespectful to the author and the story to make changes to suit your own agenda. If a story doesn’t teach your child what you want it to, then there are plenty of others that probably do. I really enjoyed this post, it gave my (27 year old) daughter and I a very interesting discussion. Thanks, Rose

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