Reflecting Characters in Fiction

What a shock to discover that one of my favourite children’s authors, Roald Dahl, who died in 1990, aged 74, was openly Anti-Semitic. His family have recently issued an apology for the author’s self-confessed views. Well, they would: after all, his estate earns them millions annually. In the notorious New Statesman interview in 1983, recently reported in the Times, Dec 6th, 2020, Dahl had commented, ‘There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity…..even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.’

Miraculously, even that notorious and shameful interview did not diminish the popularity of Dahl’s books: and his estate has continued to benefit from film rights and other promotions. The Times article reported a letter sent to Dahl from two San Francisco children, shortly before he died: ‘Dear Mr Dahl, We love your books but we have a problem…we are Jews. That offends us…….Love, Aliza and Tamar.

So, Dahl was a wonderfully creative author – if not such a wonderful person? I have recently read his memoir ‘Going Solo’ and come to appreciate how his war-time experiences influenced many of the memorable characters in his books. Did his books openly reveal such animosity towards Jews? Not to me, and not, apparently to the millions of children who have read them, and whose parents have bought them. Dahl is dead – but he has left a legacy of children’s stories that deserve to live on. It is commendable that his estate donates annually to charity: apparently, 8% of the revenue in 2018. It could be much more, as Dahl’s family benefit handsomely from the estate. Actions will always speak louder than words.

Dahl is not the only author to come under racial scrutiny: apparently, Macmillan publishers rejected a 1960 manuscript by Enid Blyton because its ‘baddies’ were either foreigners or travellers, and the Guardian criticised her book, ‘The Little Black Doll’, whose character was said to have ‘an ugly black face.’ In the ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ Twain regularly used the ‘n*****’ word, while, the slave character, Jim, was presented as ignorant and lacking education. Even Kipling has had his poem ‘If’ criticised: as students at Manchester University defaced his mural in 2018.

But how far did the work of these authors, and others, simply reflect those of a very different era? Were these writers, and others of their time, individually cruel or uncaring people? Should their racist references detract from our perceptions of their talents as writers? I believe not.

The message is now clear. We hear it. So let’s stop harping back to a time that is best left in the past. Children’s fiction must reflect the diversity of our world and portray all of its characters according to how they behave in their stories – without the discriminatory stereotyping. All white people are not good. Nor are all black people bad. Stories must reflect all of the characters according to how they respond to the circumstances in which they are placed – NOT because of innate traits linked to race or heritage. As writers it is a delicate balancing exercise to portray all characters as having the potential to be equally: good, bad, intelligent, kind, caring, compassionate, aggressive – ugly or beautiful.

Modern writers now walk on egg shells but we must get it right because young readers are influenced by the characters they read about. Let’s make sure that we promote healthy perceptions of our multi-coloured, but ONE human race.

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