"Why shouldn't parents have the choice of what to read to their children?" asked Jacques Schuster in an editorial for Die Welt. "Anyone who believes art should be changed in retrospect because it contradicts the prevailing morality must have been pleased in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan."
"I'm not saying that Preussler was racist, but that sentence was always racist," said Mekonnen Mesghena, the head of the Migration and Diversity department at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a Berlin-based think tank. It was Mesghena's letter to the Thienemann Verlag that put the revision into motion. A naturalized German citizen who emigrated at the age of 14 from war-torn Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, Mesghena says he was surprised to come across the passage while reading "The Little Witch" to his seven-year-old daughter Timmit.
"It was simply a shock to me to have such a popular book like this on the market," he says. "She has all these friends around her, the majority white Germans, but some Turkish and Asian children as well. I couldn't imagine what it would be like if they read it together. It's a disgusting situation."
An 'Inherently Tricky' Undertaking This isn't a new debate in Germany. In 2009, the Hamburg publishing house Friedrich Oetinger printed a new version of "Pippi Longstocking" in which her father was changed from the "Negro King" to the "South Sea King." In previous editions, the publisher had kept the original text but included a footnote explaining that the terminology is no longer in use, a method now suggested in the current debate as an alternative to censorship.
"I find it inherently tricky to intervene in literary texts," says Julia Lentge, a spokesperson for the Munich-based Arbeitskreis für Jugendliteratur, the state-sponsored umbrella organization responsible for the German Children's Literature Award, which was bestowed upon "The Little Witch" in 1958. Though she says she's not necessarily opposed to this particular revision, she also doesn't think it should set a precedent. It would be "such a pity if the original text were no longer available," she adds.
The question of how to deal with racism in classic children's literature is not limited to Germany, of course. In the first edition of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," published in the United States in 1964, the Oompa-Loompas were Pygmies brought by Willy Wonka from Africa in a packing case and forced to work in his factory. For the second edition, published in 1973, they were changed into "rosy-white" creatures with long "golden-brown" hair.
Scottish author Helen Bannerman's 1899 classic "The Story of Little Black Sambo," about a South Indian boy whose wits are pitted against four hungry tigers, was a favorite for half a century before it drew controversy for its resemblance to racist iconography. Both the text and illustrations have since seen major revision, and a politically correct 1996 adaptation by American illustrator Fred Marcellino was a best seller. Yet there are still many classic children's books -- such as the French Babar series, which debuted in 1931 and has been criticized for its colonialist undertones -- that remain in wide circulation in their original form.
Annotation Instead of Revision