HANDS UP IF YOU'VE NOTICED...
Anne Fine explains to younger readers why she has been making some changes in the new editions of some of her books. She has also written a similar article for adult readers.
Hands up all those of you who've noticed there are some changes in the bright clean new editions of some of the books.
I'm not just talking about the sharp new covers on the Egmont books for younger children or the more generous margins and the easier-on-the-eye print inside all those new Corgi editions.
I'm talking about the actual words.
Child readers always know when a book they are reading is really 'historical'. They know that if the ten year old girl is wearing brown boots and a wrap-around pinafore, then she is likely to be polite to her parents, let the boys make more of the decisions, and be expected to behave in a ladylike fashion.
Times keep on changing. But if it's only thirty years or fewer since the book was written, it won't be nearly so clear which parts in the book would be written quite differently today.
Take, for example, Dr Dolittle. In the original version of one of Hugh Lofting's novels, there's a buffoon of an African prince. When Lofting wrote the book, he wasn't out to hurt anyone's feelings. He simply wasn't thinking the way we do today. And since he didn't live in such a racially mixed world, he wouldn't expect any of his readers to be humiliated by the fact that the only black character in the book is downright silly.
Hugh Lofting wanted readers more than he wanted anyone to feel rotten. I once heard one of his relations on radio saying he'd be the very first to rush to take that bit of the book out so it could go back into British homes and schools and be enjoyed for all the other good bits.
And I believe that. I feel the same myself. My books have been read for years and years, but for them to carry on doing the job I wanted them to do when I first wrote them, I've had to do a bit of tweaking. I wonder if anyone noticed that eight years ago, in The Angel of Nitshill Road, we changed Celeste's first question in the playground about Barry the bully from "Poor boy! Is he mental?" to "Poor boy. Is he touched with the feather of madness?" It's certainly more sensitive, and let's face it, coming from the strangely individual Celeste, it's a lot funnier.
Let's take a few new examples:
- Anneli the Art Hater was far too wordy. I've cut it down by a quarter, and to be honest I can't see that I've missed out anything important. I think I should have written it this way right from the start. It's actually better now.
- The Country Pancake: Can this be the most boring title in the world, reminding everyone of that oh-so-tedious fable about the pancake that runs away from everyone, endlessly chortling, "Tee-hee-hee. You can't catch me."?
I think so. So we've renamed it, Saving Miss Mirabelle. (We do warn you on the back cover so no one makes the mistake of buying a book they already own.)
- The Granny Project: This book is now twenty years old. During those years, Russia has opened up to the West. Natasha Dolgorova, the mother in the family, would not have had to have escaped the way she did before. She would no longer mutter things like, "All votes in Novosibirsk are wasted votes." And the granny, too, would have grown up in an entirely different world. If she was still trotting out all that stuff about the children's friends from up the street "standing behind the door when all the hair was ironed straight", and "being baked too long in the oven", she wouldn't just be an amiable old lady who'd hardly ever seen a black child before. She'd be a horrible and committed racist.
A child can't tell, from reading it, that this book was written twenty years old when people's experience and attitudes were very different. So half a page just had to go.
- What other changes? All sorts of little things. Amounts of money. In the comedy about having a tempestuous teenager in the house called The Book of the Banshee, 'discoteques' - once a byword for cutting edge teenage excitement - have been turned into 'clubs and bars' The midwife in The Summer House Loon has been upgraded from a bicycle to a car and my heroine Ione is no longer excited at the thought of chocolate biscuits for tea. Now it has to be chocolate fudge cake. (The Summer House Loon was another terrible title. And so was its sequel, The Other Darker Ned. So I've pruned both of these short books a little, put them together, written a short link to pull the two of them together more neatly, and they're republished under the title On the Summerhouse Steps.
Right now, I'm working on The Stone Menagerie (for 9-12 year olds, and temporarily out of print). This is, for me, the most interesting of all because, although so many people tell me it's their favourite of all my novels for this age group, I know that's because they like Ally. They identify with his problem, and they find his growing relationship with the exotic Flora and her amiable if sarcastic companion Riley inspiring because it so feeds his confidence and makes him able to become more of the person he would like to be.
But all that stuff about the hospital, and the way in which Ally's poor sick Aunt Chloe responded so positively just to a bit of fresh air and two kind people worries me horribly now. I think I was too far under the influence of a few new (and now largely discredited) ideas about mental illness. I was simplistic. And I think I was a little too casual about one or two other things in that book. I look at a few passages and know that I quite sincerely wouldn't put something written in that form in front of my readers of that age now.
So I'm busy with that one.
Some day, someone will suddenly decide to write a thesis of the differing versions of my novels, and what it says about the changes in our society. (It certainly seems to me to have become, in many ways, a kinder, more inclusive and more sensitive place.) And they'll write pages and pages about which is the real The Granny Project, or Anneli the Art Hater, or The Stone Menagerie, or whatever.
But all I'm doing is what all authors want to do all of their lives. I'm trying to get more readers, to give as many of them as possible what we still call 'a really good read', and feel proud of what I'm putting in front of them.