Censorship by Debate? or the Curious, Electronic E-fair of the "Hippo Smack"

Hazel Edwards

Hazel Edwards is an Australian author of over 170 books for adults and children including the classic There's a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake (continually in print for its 28 years and recently part of the Australian Government's gift to the newborn Danish Princess Isabella). 

Hazel writes across media, including YA titles FakeID, Antarctica’s Frozen Chosen and its sequel Outback Ferals and recently she co-authored ex blog Cycling Solo: Ireland to Istanbul  with her cartographer son Trevelyan Quest Edwards (the original 3 year old  mind behind the Hippo concept).  In 2000 she was a recipient of the Australian Antarctic Division's Humanities Program berth that took her on the polar resupply voyage to Casey station, Antarctica in 2001 with resulting expedition publications that included animation, scripts, Auslan (signing) DVDs and the picture book Antarctic Dad. Hazel runs Non Boring Writing workshops for genealogists, and web-chats about stories like ‘HandMe Down Hippo', crossing media with audio, Braille and visual presentation.  In 2006 she was a national Literacy Champion and is on the Australian Society of Authors’ committee, co-holding the portfolios for Education and Children’s Books. Her books have been translated into many languages and across media into theatre and TV.

Hippo book cover

‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake’ picture book series has achieved iconic status in Australia.  Colorfully illustrated by Deborah Niland, the titles explore the reassurance of having an imaginary hippo friend who accompanies a little girl through all ‘first-time’ scary experiences like starting school, going to hospital or on holiday, or having a new baby in the family. The books celebrate imagination and self-esteem. Internationally the series has sold over a million copies and has been translated into Japanese.  It has crossed media into puppetry, performance, video, audio, music and songs, Auslan (signing) for deaf children and Braille. Nominated by readers as one of the ABC’s most popular books of all time, it has won numerous awards and is even painted as a favourite character on the side of a mobile library bus.

Originally published by Hodder, and annually reprinted, sometimes more than once, the titles were moved to Penguin in 2004. When a 25th anniversary reprint was planned, a line in the first title was queried.  At a point in the story where the little girl gets in trouble for drawing on “Daddy’s best book”, it was suggested that the original “Daddy gave me a smack” be changed to “Daddy growled at me.”


Sometimes words travel further and faster than their creators.

Being the creator of a well known book like There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake has been a quiet pleasure for over a quarter of a century since the original 1980 publication. However, in November 2004 when consideration of the ‘smack’ became an issue of contemporary family values in the new Penguin edition, authorship became a media responsibility.

The sequence is significant as it is a case of cross-media coverage in a time of rapid electronic transfer on an issue which escalated into a volatile discussion of censorship. From e-mail, to web chats, mobile messages, radio and T.V.  interviews and ‘experts’ being interviewed and even becoming an issues clear thinking piece for school students in The Melbourne Age’s Education section, the use of the electronic medium, in McLuhan-ish terms, affected the message. That is why I say ‘e-fair’.

It is important to state there never was conflict between author and publisher, as the original editorial change from ‘smack’ to ‘Daddy growled’ had been agreed a week prior, and the author-publisher relationship was extremely amicable. After listening to Penguin’s reasons, I had reluctantly agreed despite believing stories should be read in the cultural context in which they were written.  However in some interviews, the subsequent media coverage implied publisher censorship. This was not so.

My view that, once it is published, a book belongs to the imagination of the reader, not the author, was confirmed by the issue of the ‘smack’. Readers claimed definite ownership of this book, especially parents for whom it was their favourite book during their childhood. And beyond the book, it is the positive or negative emotions associated with childhood which are so passionate, and which this book symbolises in the reassuring role of an imaginary friend. The majority, to contact me with passionate views, were young fathers who wanted to read it to their children in its original version. Whether the wording was changed or not, they wanted the opportunity to use the book as a focus of family discussion. So many dads wanting to read to their kids was a plus!

A second group were the ‘twenty-something’ producers, presenters and journalists who had fond memories of the book or older media colleagues who had read it to their children. So the issue became topical because of media-opinion choosers.

Political topicality was a factor too. The ‘Hippo Smack’ editing incident occurred while various politicians were adopting children’s reading as a ‘worthy’ vote-catcher and because changing a phrase in a book was tenuously linked to censorship.

Media-wise, this ‘Hippo Smack’ incident is significant because as it became a ‘news’ rather than a ‘feature’ issue.  It also criss-crossed the local cultural gap between the ABC/The Age ‘serious’ media and the more tabloid, talkback Herald Sun, Channel 7 and 9 commercial audiences, as well as regional radio and television. But the fastest spread was via the Internet.

The original issue of the changing of a phrase in a new edition of a picture book was ‘lifted’ electronically into web chats where extracts from considered articles were quoted in and out of context. Sometimes the online web chatters had not seen the book, but felt that they had licence to comment because ‘childhood’ is valued. They felt they were experts because they had been children, have them or knew what is right for children.

Adult readers projected their feelings about how parents had disciplined them onto the proposed change in the book, so a few views were extreme and cannot be quoted here. Cynics commented that it was a very successful PR exercise by the author. But since the book was not available until scheduled reprinting 4 months later, it would have been a pointless PR exercise when no copies were available for sale.

So, here is a summary of how this curious, electronic e-fair unfolded.

Note: Letters to the editor are in public domain so can be used. Ironically in checking with the Arts-Law service I discovered that legally I do not own the e-mails addressed to me as the author of the book and that I have to get permission to quote in full. Difficult, as many were hotmail or had no return e-dresses or bounced. However I am legally entitled to summarise the major points even if not using the names. So I have.

November 3rd 2004
There had been a news item on ABC radio about the UK Parliament being pressured by the child protection lobby to pass a law banning smacking. So, I wrote to The Age about it:

Letter to the Editor: Smacking

The child protection lobby wants smacking of children to be banned by parliamentary law. As the author of the 25 year old children’s classic There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake I’ve been asked to remove the ‘Daddy gave me a smack’ in the next Penguin edition and replace it with ‘Daddy growled at me.’ While I do not support child abuse, I do not want to change the text because many of the million child readers know the book word for word, but I will probably bow to political pressure. What do readers think? 
Hazel Edwards, Blackburn South

This provoked immediate responses for interviews and a flood of e-mails and phone calls from readers and talkback who favoured for a variety of reasons retaining the original wording by about 9 to 1.

Later that day - Nov 3rd  
Macquarie Network radio pre-recorded an interview and followed with talkback radio (this was repeated several times and other media outlets started to chase the story) provoking readers’ letters to the editor.

November 4th 2004
The Age education editor’s feature article "Editing Smacks of Censorship: Author" was particularly important because it was syndicated around the country to The Sydney Morning Herald and The West Australian as well as being on-line immediately, enabling segments to be electronically copied or quoted.

Likewise, the Melbourne Herald-Sun photographic story was available online as well as in print.


On the morning of November 4th, the phone started ringing at 7 am, and as I stood dripping, I was glad it was not a video phone.

‘We’re fifteen minutes away.’
‘Away from what?
‘Your house. Please don’t let the other channel speak to you first.’

The producers and interviewers from Channel 7’s Today Tonight and Channel 9’s A Current Affairs news commentary programs vied for ‘different’ angles, and agreed between themselves not to be on the premises at the same time. On request, I changed my top for each TV segment so the colour was different. In between the phone rang constantly until one of the crew took it off the hook, despite phone radio interviews and talkback with most interstate morning and evening programs. That afternoon, I had to give a suburban writing workshop and turned off my mobile for the three hour session. When I turned it on, the message bank was full. Our home phone message tapes were full also.

In between I tried to keep in contact with Penguin’s publicist and later heard that, after visiting me, the current affairs television crew had gone unannounced to Penguin Books to interview the publisher and that she had also received many e-mails.

As a family, we tried to watch the simultaneous currents affairs TV programs and were surprised at how little was used after the 2-3 hours spent and also at the editorial attempts to suggest conflict.

Channel 7 Today Tonight Nov 4th 2004
(Note - Transcripts of introductions to television current affairs programs are available online and these often follow the pattern of stressing a dilemma).

As the political correctness court cases fly, another controversy rages over a book called There's a hippopotamus on our roof eating cake.
One line in particular has come under fire. The central character is reprimanded with the line 'Daddy gave me a smack' and the book's publishers Penguin want this changed to the less contentious 'daddy growled at me'.
Author Hazel Edwards says she would prefer the line stays in her re-released book.
"I think it is comparable to taking out cultural references when you translate a book from other cultures," Ms Edwards said. "And I think it's important for our children to see stories from our past and also read about other cultures and see them in context."
Penguin publisher Laura Harris says the changes reflect the attitudes of today, rather than those of 25 years ago when the book was first written.
"We felt by changing that line we perhaps gave a message where children can decide which disciplinary actions they want to take – that smacking wasn't the only way of disciplining a child," Ms Harris said.
"The fact is smacking is not an everyday choice as it was in 1979."
Joe Tucci from Australians Against Child Abuse applauds the move.
"I think Penguin have shown a lot of foresight to actually encourage the author to review the book," Mr Tucci said. "And I think it's positive that publishers review children's books in particular to make sure they reflect positive and respectful attitudes towards children."
Hazel Edwards' Australian classic is not the first children's book to come under scrutiny.
"The one I know about is the 'golliwog' being taken out of the Enid Blyton stories," Mr Tucci said. "Because it reflects racist attitudes and I think we understand as adults, books are a good way to learn."

November 5th 2004
Hot topic on all morning TV programs.  Western Australian media tended to ring two hours later because of the time zones. Often I did not see the interstate published articles or letters until much later, and I did not hear pre-recorded interstate or regional programs, nor how frequently they were repeated until anecdotal mentions later by people living in those areas.

But I was aware of Letters to the Editor in all newspapers.

The issue had now reached poll status in The Sunday Age Nov 7th

Age Online Poll Nov 7th
Children's Books: Should children's books be altered to reflect changing values?
Yes - 15%
No - 85%
Total Votes: 570 Poll date: 07/11/04
Related: Editing smacks of censorship: author

November 15th 2004
The “Issues in the News” section of the weekly Education Age lift-out is a full page Current Issue discussion for secondary and upper primary students.  The appearance of “The Hippo Smack” on Monday Nov 15th was highly significant because this provided a range of views and the opportunity for students and educators to discuss the broader issues in a more balanced way. It also meant that most students were using the media clips as a clear thinking exercise.

Under the headline "In a hippo trouble", it posed the topic “The republication of a children's classic has raised questions about what young people should be allowed to read” with the questions “Should children’s books be censored?” and “Is it fair to change Edwards’ story?”

In its introductory paragraphs it noted that:

Edwards' book is not the first to spark debate about the censorship of children's literature.
In July, Morris Gleitzman's children's books Boy Overboard and Girl Underground were criticised by Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone. The books, aimed at nine to 12-year-olds, deal with children in immigration detention centres. Ms Vanstone argued that the topic was not suitable for children.
There was concern that Gleitzman's books would turn children against the Howard Government's policy of the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and their children. But others argue that children already hear about the topic in the media, and books are a good way to engage young people on important social questions. They can help ease their anxiety about topics they don't completely understand.
The Australian Family Association disagrees. Its members say some issues - including abortion, war, abuse, bullying, divorce, homosexuality and alcoholism - should be left to adults.

It then quoted a range of views given in print and broadcast media:

"Talk about political correctness gone mad. One 'smack' hardly constitutes child abuse. If it works, don't fix it."
Geraldine E. Foster, Herald Sun, November 6

"Children should be allowed to be children. Their innocence should be protected."
Bill Muehlenberg, Australian Family Association vice-president, The Australian, November 5

"While I do not support child abuse, I do not want to change the text because many children know it word for word, but I will probably bow to political pressure."
Hazel Edwards, author of There's a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, The Australian, November 4

"I don't think it's about censorship, I think it's acknowledging that decisions on discipline are up to parents and individual households. We didn't believe that keeping that line reflected the idea of choices that parents and guardians of children have to make."
Laura Harris, Penguin spokeswoman, The Age, November 4

"Someone who crawls into their shell or suffers the pain of loneliness and rejection because their father 'growls at them' would not be a worthy heroine. As someone who experienced considerable violence as a child, I object to the issue being hidden away."
Ben Wheaton, The Age, November 4

"Smacking a child for drawing on a book is certainly an overreaction, but why can't we explain this to our children as we read it - 'Gosh, that's a bit harsh, isn't it?' - and move on? This is what is wonderful about reading to our children; being able to talk over issues along the way."
Suzette Hosken, The Age, November 4

"Children see and hear things and they need ways to try and understand them. It is fantastic to have authors giving them tools with which to think about those things."
Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, The Age, September 6

"Young readers don't see political issues such as refugees and detention centres in the way that many adults do. Adults are often locked into the party political, left wing/right wing, I'm right/you're wrong, mindset. Young readers see these issues much more in terms of empathy and justice; what's fair and what's not fair."
Morris Gleitzman, children's author, www.morrisgleitzman.com, August 20

The section concluded with the question for its student readers “What's your view? Do you think Hazel Edwards' book should be altered? Why? Is there a place for censorship in children's literature? Are there some topics that young readers should be shielded from? Submit your view online.”

Over the next few weeks, the affair generated plenty of discussion.  Following are e-mail extracts (with permission given to quote), phone calls, SMS and Letters to the Editor which are in the public domain.

Letters to the Editor (The Age)

Don't mess with hippopotamuses
While Hazel Edwards has been asked to make a seemingly minor change to her book, There's a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake (The Age, 4/11), she highlights a worrying trend in censorship of children's books.
"Daddy gave me a smack" in this context (a fanciful story) is unlikely to be taken to heart by a child, but if that child is in an abusive situation, he or she just might be able to name their problem because they have been given the language to express it.
Our society is reeling from the effects of older generations who are just now disclosing the sexual abuse suffered during childhood precisely because it was a problem that wasn't talked about in nice company.
A number of authors for older readers, such as John Marsden, have encountered censorship when their themes run to mental illness, suicide and other taboos. Their readers devour their books, hungry for subject matter that engages them.
We can't protect our children from everything, but let's at least allow them the tools to express themselves. Censorship is not the answer.
Linda O'Connor, Northcote

How bizarre!
Oh Hazel, how bizarre! Don't change a word of this beautiful book! My five-year-old daughter loves There's a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, the passage mentioned causes her no concern, and having had the experience of two smacks in her time, knows these in no way diminish the love her parents feel for her.
As a parent of three children I know about love, and I know how difficult asserting discipline in the right mix can be. If a parent cannot understand the difference between creating boundaries and abusing their children, then altering your lovely book will in no way help or change them.
Merrin Healy, Thornbury

Sample E-mail:

Kathryn Duncan   (Children’s book reviewer, mother of two) 
I thought you might be interested in a discussion I had with my daughter's kinder assistant after she saw the article in the Herald Sun.
Sam is of the opinion that you should leave it as smacking. She feels it is a good discussion point for children and can help them learn that smacking is in fact wrong (this is the way I have dealt with it with my daughter). Sam felt that a smack, in this context, does not constitute child abuse. We also talked about the fact that growling can be a form of mental/psychological abuse as well.

And a witty email letter from The Age on 8 November 2004:

PC Penguins
Well, everybody who is anybody knows that Daddy Hippos do certainly smack young Hippos that get onto the roof and eat cake. It is Mummy Hippos that growl in such situations.
Any self-respecting Penguin of whatever age should know that. Perhaps Penguins need to return the children's book publishing to Puffins, who would not tolerate such subtle censorship.
So, Hazel Edwards, don't let yourself be bullied by Politically Correct Penguins.
Robert Gunter, Red Hill

E-mails were often addressed via my web-site and since it was not possible to gain permission to quote the writers in some cases, the points from these are summarized:

…I was dismayed to read that line "Daddy smacked me" in your award winning book, and it has caused me to pass over the book in selecting stories to read to my children from our bookshelves at home…

Every time we read your book, the Daddy smacks the little girl - every time.

The nature of children's books is that parents and children read and re-read them until they know them off by heart.  And so, in this story, the message is that Daddy always smacks.

An argument against changing the wording after 27 years is that many children know the words by heart e.g.

My son really loves any of the hippo stories of yours that we can find. He is nearly 3 and can say verbatim all the words in 'There's a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake'.   

You may have to remove the reference to eating cake to 'eating a low fat, no carbohydrate healthy snack alternative' for fear of encouraging childhood obesity.
Let's promote education and choice, not prohibition and censorship.

I draw a similar parallel to my situation as a composer, where I might be asked to change notes in my works five years hence, because somebody does not like a particular sound.  I would most definitely not change my work; oh, how we could rewrite history!!

Hi Hazel, I thought you might be interested to read a web chat discussion between mothers regarding the proposed editing of your book. I think the overwhelming majority say don't do it.

Maybe they should change 'Daddy' to 'Father Figure' or 'Male Role Model' too.  I mean, not every child has a Daddy, do they?  

…while my daughter and I have enjoyed reading the original version of the book, that particular page did jar with me and influenced my decision not to buy that particular book to send to the daughter of a friend in the US knowing that they don't smack their own children or condone the practice. I just wanted to let you know that, while you are probably hearing lots of criticism from the anti-PC brigade, there are other parents who support you and would probably be more likely to buy this book now. I am particularly pleased to see that such a lovely book will be available to a new generation of children.

June 1st 2005
A very colourful letter arrived.

Late last year I had the good fortune to meet Dr June Factor (former Civil Liberties Chair) at a social function. Your book which was attracting some controversy at the time came into our conversation. I told her about my nephew, as a 3 year old, and she suggested I tell you the story.

Martin sat down to ‘read’ There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake as 3 year olds do who have heard a book so many times they know all the words and when to turn the pages. However, the Martin version was slightly different.

‘There’s a hippopotamus on Our Roof.’
‘Shit!’ said the mother.’

As Martin’s mother, my sister remarked, ‘That’s exactly what I would say!’ Martin is 16 now, but the story lives on.

Thank you for all the pleasure your books have brought my family over the years.

The Australian Society of Authors has been discussing copyright issues with the Attorney-General who has accepted the view that Australia is bound by the Berne Convention on Human Rights to introduce Moral Rights, i.e. the right to be attributed as the author of a work, and the right to have the integrity of the work respected.

The latter provides authors with a legal right to object to the distortion or modification of a work which is prejudicial to the author's reputation.

Four years later, I’m still receiving comments, such as “Is that the sanitized version or the original?” and queries  at conference question time and by e-mail which mainly support the original wording. I’ve had academics interested in writing about ‘Hippo smack’ for their theses, and also had it pointed out to me that “Hippo Smack” could mean heroin. In general, there is an affectionate  ‘ownership’ of this book by all generations.

This ‘curious electronic e-fair of the hippo smack’ has raised issues of media escalation and interactivity of debate due to electronic availability, the impact of political correctness on children’s books and most importantly, the imaginative power of a children’s book which lasts into adulthood.

So I’m considering writing a short Q and A  book aimed mainly at a child audience  about the creative process of Hippo’s History, ( A Serendipitous Map) and a new birthday celebratory hippo picture book (as yet un-named), illustrated by Deborah Niland, is planned for the 30th year (end 2009). I am also in discussions about a theatrical production. Despite the topicality of obesity, and bureaucratic demands for ladder-climbing certificates, our hippo will still be eating cake on the roof.
And, Yes, the smack was changed to growled!


Hazel Edwards' website has discussion notes on the titles mentioned and links to publishers.

The "Hippo" books

There's a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake (ISBN 0143501364)

My Hippopotamus is on our Caravan Roof Getting Sunburnt (0143501380)

Look, There's a Hippopotamus in the Playground Eating Cake (ISBN 0143501402)

Hey Hippopotamus, Do Babies eat Cake Too? (ISBN 0143501399)

Guess What? There's a Hippopotamus on the Hospital Roof Eating Cake (ISBN 0143501372)

All titles are illustrated by Deborah Niland


Hazel Edwards

Volume 12, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, May/June, 2008

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"Censorship by Debate? or the Curious, Electronic E-fair of the "Hippo Smack"" © Hazel Edwards 2008
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