Redacting Racism: Edit of Classic Children's Book Hexes Publisher

PHOTO: A German book publisher was accused of being overly politically correct in their editing of books such as "Die Kleine Hexe" ("The Little Witch").

A German publisher is being accused of excessive political correctness for removing controversial language from a classic children's book, sparking debate about how to handle outdated and offensive words in the genre.

Last month German Family Minister Kristina Schröder incited the ire of her fellow conservative politicians when she took aim at politically incorrect content in classic children's literature. In addition to suggesting that God should be gender neutral, she criticized sexist and racist messages in some of these tales too. If she were to read aloud to her daughter from one of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking books, called "Pippi in Taka Tuka Land" in German, she would leave out the word "negro" in order "to protect my child from taking on such expressions," Schröder told the daily newspaper Die Zeit.

Now one of Germany's oldest children's book publishers, Thienemann Verlag, is taking a similar tack, and the reaction has been no less contentious. Its new edition of Otfried Preussler's beloved 1957 tale "The Little Witch" ("Die kleine Hexe") has been amended to remove certain questionable terms, including the word "negro." The decision has sparked heated discussion over how to handle outdated, controversial language in classic children's books.

"As a publisher it's my job to convey classics from one generation to the next," says Klaus Willenberg, the director of Thienemann Verlag. He says he had wanted to amend the text for years, but was only recently able to secure the approval of the late Preussler's daughter. Now many are accusing him of censorship and excessive political correctness.

The passage at the heart of the debate describes a group of children dressed in costume to celebrate Fastnacht -- the pre-Lent carnival observed throughout southern Germany and parts of Austria and Switzerland. "But the two little negroes were not from the circus," it reads. "Nor were the Turks or the Indians. Even the little Chinese girls, the man-eater, the Eskimo women, the desert sheik and the Hottentot chieftan were not from the show booth. No, it was carnival night in the village!"

Otfried Preussler's books have been translated into 55 languages, and more than 50 million copies have been sold worldwide. Some 50,000 copies of "The Little Witch," which follows the story of a 127-year-old "bad witch" determined to turn good, are sold each year, according to the publisher. In the new text, part of a colorized edition that will be released in July by Thienemann Verlag to commemorate the celebrated author's 90th birthday, the children's costumes are no longer ethnic. Other terms -- like "wichsen," which once meant "to polish," but is now more often associated with male masturbation -- have also been removed.

An Attack on Artistic Integrity? "It's not just about politically incorrect terms such as "negro," but also terms that children no longer understand," says Willenberg, who has since received some 200 angry emails in response to last week's announcement. Several conservative German newspapers, such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Welt, have printed critical editorials of the revisions. They argue that altering a work of literature ruptures its artistic integrity, and that protecting children is not the duty of the publisher, but of parents or teachers, who should explain problematic terms to children.

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