“Sensitivity Readers” and the Future of Literature

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Today we’re looking at the censorship of classical literary works and the effects it can, and does, have on our education and society.

Below you will find the full show notes and reference list for Episode 22 of The State of Education Podcast, presented by One-Room Education, along with links to the resources mentioned in this episode.

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Question of the Week:

Do you agree with editing “outdated” books and novels for a more sensitive “modern audience”?

If you have any questions or comments about this episode or any of the information presented, please make sure to leave a comment at the bottom of this post.

“Sensitivity Readers” and the Future of Literature

Show Notes

Welcome back to The State of Education podcast, presented by One-Room Education.

Today we’re diving into the world of Sensitivity Readers to see what changes they’re making to beloved classic stories and the effect it can, and does, have on our understanding of language and historical context.

Topics discussed today include:

  • What does George Orwell have to do with this?
  • What are “Sensitivity Readers”?
  • Edits to Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach…)
  • Changes to Agatha Christie Novels (mystery author)
  • R.L. Stine (author of Goosebumps books) is speaking out!
  • How to address content you don’t agree with.
  • Should we be changing original literary choices of an author?
  • What you can do to help curb this trend.

It brings up the term Orwellian to me.

Now I am a huge fan of George Orwell and his writing so on our social media I’ll talk about being Boxer, don’t just be one of the sheep from Animal Farm. Stand up and say something no matter what the cost is going to be because it’s the right thing to do.

I make references to 1984 all the time and Fahrenheit 451 because these types of dystopian novels are literally coming to life in slow motion in front of me.

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

Well I think if you just look at even the past decade or two and just how quickly things have changed. 

We’re seeing some of these things because it feels like everything’s happening much faster where, even 10 years ago, some of the things that are going on now people probably were like, “Oh, well it’ll never get that bad,” even if small changes were being made, but it never ends here.

Amanda, The State of Education, June 27, 2023

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “Orwellian is an adjective and it means “of related to or suggestive of George Orwell or his writings especially to or suggestive of the dystopian reality depicted in the novel 1984.”

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

I want to point out that the book 1984 was obviously set in the year 1984 and it talks about what happens whenever a government becomes the ultimate authoritarian and controls everything you say and do through fear of extermination essentially.

So if you have not read the book 1984 by George Orwell I highly suggest it. It’s just super entertaining, it is ridiculously well written and it’s a thriller, sort of sci-fi dystopian kind of thing. 

But it’s terrifying too, especially whenever you look at everything that’s happened since this book was written. The government controls all of the information that gets put out in the media. It’s all state media and the truth tellers are imprisoned and they are taken away from society. And they have something called double speak that comes from 1984 by George Orwell and that’s whenever truth is depicted as lies and lies are told as truths.

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

Things are being changed to suit one way of thinking. I was talking about this with my husband and he was saying, with certain movies that you watch now that are very current, all the characters are very shallow.

They’re all kind of exactly the same. And so it’s giving people a very narrow worldview. Because they’re not just letting the characters be who they are, who they were written to be. These characters were written a certain way. 

And now we’re making them all these one-size-fits-all to fit with what we think is “nice”, if that’s the correct term. And they’re trying to make things “age appropriate”, because look at all the other stuff out there. That is to me not age appropriate.

So I feel like it’s narrowing everything. I feel everyone thinks we’re getting smarter. We’re not. It’s narrowing our vocabulary, it’s narrowing our world.  It just makes me sad because we’re both in the education field. I do a lot of literacy with students and, to me,  this is not going to help and it’s just sad.

Amanda, The State of Education, June 27, 2023

If you can keep them focused on unimportant things: calling somebody by the wrong name, or worrying about changing the ethnicity of a character, because that’s what’s really important, right, in a story. If you can keep people focused and upset about that type of stuff, then they don’t have the time to know that propaganda became legal for the government to use in the United States on their own people. They don’t have the time to worry about education, stuff that’s going on with their children inside the schools. If you can keep people distracted on stuff that doesn’t matter and then convince them that that is the stuff that matters over a couple of generations, it just kind of ends up where we are.

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

I will see Peter Rabbit books without her original artwork and they change the story. And I always get so upset because her artwork makes the stories, let’s be honest. I love and I am a supporter of the originals, the classics. And honestly a lot of the new stuff? A lot of the new kids books. I just feel they’re very shallow. 

I feel if there’s books that I don’t want my kids to read, then they just won’t read them. And, why do we have to change? They make it seem like everyone wants this, like the majority wants this. And if you actually asked people, a lot of times I don’t think that’s true.

Amanda, The State of Education, June 27, 2023

And one thing that parents don’t know about is that they can opt out of reading assignments in school. So if you don’t agree with a book or something going on, you can have your child opt out and they can have an alternative assignment. But that requires you as the parent to be on top of what’s going on.

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

It wasn’t considered all that racist or out of the realm of possibility that that would happen when that book was written. So I think that those things are topics that we need to talk about, not suppress or edit away. 

And the same thing with history books that have been edited forever, because people are offended about one thing or another. But as a historian, as a teacher of history, as everything, I know that you have to teach the hard stuff, you have to teach that stuff, or you don’t learn from it, and you’re doomed to repeat it. And I think that especially children’s fiction is one of the best places to do that. Talk about why calling somebody fat isn’t necessarily nice, not necessarily incorrect, but not nice.

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

So…I think that that’s one of the things where history teachers talk all the time about how children are so caught off guard whenever they learn about certain things in history, or that they’re so caught off guard and upset whenever they learn that a certain event in history happened, right? And it’s because those events or those topics aren’t developmentally appropriate in the depth that they’re being gone over later on. 

So being exposed in a microcosm of fiction at a younger age is okay to talk about, it’s not good to buy people, even if it’s for cocoa beans, or using certain language against each other and why that’s not really okay. And fiction is the best way to do that for kids, because they’re exposed to it, but they don’t have to have the trauma of actually living it.

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

This isn’t just happening with kids’ books. This isn’t just happening with Dr. Seuss or Roald Dahl. 

This is happening across the board. And I would posit that it’s an attempt to change language, as opposed to an overt sort of attempt to change language and to change our understanding of the English language. Because there have been several studies over the past few years where people’s IQs are literally lower.

So if you have people where their IQs are lower, that means that they don’t understand as large of a vocabulary as somebody in the 1970s would have had, which means that you have to dumb down the books for them instead of forcing them to work at it so that they understand what’s going on.

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

There was a Scottish actor, Brian Cox, and he had a quote: “We can’t start rewriting works of literature because it suits our so-called ‘moral code’.”

Amanda, The State of Education, June 27, 2023

One of the reasons you read fiction is as a form of escape or entertainment, right? So I don’t need it to emulate what’s happening in society today. If I’m reading historical fiction or something that happened in the past, I expect it to be different. So I’m not worried about it being relevant for modern times.

Then I’ll read a book that was written this year and let’s be honest again, with children’s books, a lot of the newer books I’m not that into. I mean once in a while, and that’s just personal preference, but I feel there’s a depth in these older books that I haven’t found in a lot of the newer books that I read. So I don’t need it to be relevant to modern times personally.

Amanda, The State of Education, June 27, 2023

Part of the context is the story itself, but a lot of it is backlit with what’s going on historically at the time. Her books are mysteries yes, but a lot of them are taking place during the wars and a lot of  tumultuous things. So they all happen mostly in Europe and a lot of things were going on during those years, right?

And you said Gone with the Wind or any of those movies. Okay, there’s an adventure or  a love story but it’s set in this time frame where you’re learning about what was going on.


So, to me, you can’t separate those. If we’re inserting these characters, changing the characters to fit our times, there’s this mismatch that doesn’t work because that wasn’t happening then.  You have to take it as a whole and you can’t just take things here and there and change them because it would be more modern because it’s not a modern story.

Amanda, The State of Education, June 27, 2023

I’m not a huge fan of Roald Dahl, I think he’s weird. I think his books are dark, but whatever. It’s very important to go out and buy the versions of these books that are not edited and make sure that you’re not purchasing the edited one by mistake, okay? 

Go out and buy the original version because you’re able to vote with your dollar. They’re seeing how far they can push people and they’re saying, “What, we think we took a step too far, so we’re gonna take a half step back and see what people do then.” So if we don’t go out and purchase the re-release of the originals, we won’t have that option later. I’m really asking everyone, I will be going out with my husband as soon as these are released to buy the original versions because I think that it’s that important that we’re going to put our personal money up for that.

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

Like  I said before, where does this end? Because there’s always going to be new things that are offensive or new terms. I mean, the terms that we’re supposed to use and not supposed to use for things and for people change all the time. It’s hard to keep up with, right? So, are we just going to be doing this every few years to change with the terms that are culturally relevant today? And then what happens when they change back? I just feel we’re setting an unrealistic expectation of having to then do this constantly forever. Because where’s the end?

Amanda, The State of Education, June 27, 2023

So, the rule of law and all of that stuff in the United States is based on Judeo-Christian rule of law, as prescribed by the Judeo-Christian Bible. Now, a lot of the stuff that people have been complaining about being in school libraries, like Gender Queer and a couple of other books that are just wholly inappropriate for children. 

They’re offering some books that have graphic descriptions of sexual encounters in elementary school libraries that are now being offered as graphic novels for those kids that have a little bit of trouble reading. So, that kind of stuff, literal pornography being removed from elementary school libraries. People are saying that that’s book burning and Nazis and crazy right wing people because I don’t want my elementary school kid to see pornography.

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

My favorite just absolutely absurd example of this right now is the conflation of drag and trans and drag shows for kids. Did you see the teen that got a lap dance by the drag queen during a school funded and school mandated attendance to the drag show? No. Did you see that? Oh, that’s a thing. Look it up. Don’t look it up, but look it up. So if you say I don’t want my teen daughter being gyrated on by a grown male with all of his junk still attached as part of mandatory school hours. Then they’ll say, well, you’re against trans people. I thought trans people and drag performers were two different things. 

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

The stuff that people worry about in the United States is so narcissistic and so petty and ridiculous and it’s not helping our kids. It’s making us weak. It’s making our children weak of mind and that’s showing up in test scores across the board.

This generation that’s currently in school is the first generation to ever test with a lower IQ standard than the previous generation. And I think that a lot of stuff that we talk about, like tech and stuff? That contributes to it, yes.

But a general sanitization dumbing down of the language, especially in these beloved children’s books? And adult books with the Agatha Christie stuff? And she’s not the only one getting targeted. I think keeping Americans in a bubble is doing us a great disservice and the people that are pushing that don’t understand where it leads to in a few years.

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

I think if you have kids in school you can go into the library and see what’s there. I think, again, you are the parent and a lot of times there is this disconnect with the school and knowing what’s going on. But again, you should know what they’re reading, what their options are. You’re the parent. Even though sometimes schools, I feel like they try to act like they’re the parent. I work in schools. So I’m saying this as one who works in the school, that in all aspects, parents don’t always realize what their voice is.

Amanda, The State of Education, June 27, 2023

People like you and me that are part of the system in one way or another, are able to call out the system. We are dangerous to them because we tell parents that you can tell your teacher that you want an alternative assignment for your kid if they’re reading a book that you don’t agree with. 

And if that alternative assignment is not acceptable to you as a parent, you can tell them to give you another alternative assignment until you get one that you are happy with and you think is fair. That is your right as a parent. And if they tell you that it’s not, get a lawyer. Take a lawyer to a school board meeting. 

I guarantee you some other parents will talk to you and your lawyer about what’s going on and see if they can get on there too. Because all it takes is for one loudmouth parent to stand up and say something, and get called a racist. Get called a xenophobe. Get called a Nazi. Get called a bigot. Get called a transphobe. 

If you can stand getting called those things and not cower into your turtle shell, you can help change the course of this entire country by changing the course of your child’s education. So don’t be afraid. As soon as one person stands up, other people will start talking to them and start supporting them. They might not do it in public, but you’ll get that support that you need. 

And it’s been shown time and time again to be true. Go parents!

Katie J., The State of Education, June 27, 2023.

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