Sunday, August 4, 2013

Are "Children's Classics" Any Good?

I've sat on this post for a while, deciding if I still agreed with it, but I think I do:

For several months recently, I worked as a clerk and book-buyer at a used bookstore. Shelving books was a major part of the job, and a lot of the shelving was in the extensive children's section.

The store had a pretty good selection, including three or four shelves of children's classics. Most of these books were actually "special adaptations"--simplified versions that contained most of the important plot points (at least the child-friendly ones), but none of the tone or spirit of the original writing. For example, the Great Illustrated Classics version of The Wizard of Oz begins, "Dorothy lived with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry on a small farm in Kansas." In Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the actual first sentence reads, "Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife."

I still haven't read this book. Can you believe it?

The more I see these adaptations, the more annoyed I get. It's bad enough that the series creators decided to dumb down classic children's books like Peter Pan and A Little Princess. Readers of these books, who probably won't know any better, won't get to experience the authors' original styles, and may miss out on important plot points that add emotional subtlety to the narrative.

Worse, though, is when companies like this produce watered-down versions of Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice. These stories were meant for adults, and you can't pare them down enough for children to digest without really gutting them.

I'm not saying kids shouldn't read the original novels. If they can understand the writing, and appreciate some of the themes, then that's awesome. But by reading these adaptations, they're only getting the plot--and the same basic plot can tell a lot of different stories, depending on the author's motivation.

Look, for example,  at the first pages of Great Illustrated Classics' Pride and Prejudice adaptation.  It's missing all its sarcastic humor--all Mrs. Bennet's silliness, and all the restrained nastiness of her husband's barbs. You'd never guess it was meant as a piece of social criticism. Boiled down like this, it's not a work of literature anymore--just a story.

"And they all lived happily ever after."

Thinking about this, I came to the idea that a reader who can't handle a work of literature in its original form isn't ready to receive the story's message. When I was seven or eight, for example, I read an abridged version of A Tale of Two Cities. I felt very smug for having read such a famous book, but I couldn't tell you what it was about--I could barely follow the plot. As far as I know, it made no emotional impact; all I have is the vague memory of someone swimming across the English Channel, and of a woman knitting secret messages in a corner.

Of course, I do hope to read the book again someday. It's pretty far down my list, though: the abridgement did nothing to pique my interest. Really, should an eight-year-old be expected to grasp the themes of something like Huckleberry Finn, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?

Something about a squid...?

I understand that "kids' classics" are meant as a sort of introduction, but do they serve their intended purpose? How many kids who read things like the Great Illustrated Classics series are going to read the original works as adults? I'm sure many do, but I'm sure many don't. I could be entirely off-base, but my gut feeling is that there's not much good to be said about any form of bowdlerized art. If you can't appreciate the work in its original form, then you're not ready to read it. Such is my opinion.

Anyway, I had a lot more about translations that I was going to write here, but the post kind of exploded, so I decided to split it in two. What do you think about children's adaptations? Have you read an adaptation, then come back to the original work later? How do you think it affected your reading of the original?

Let me know--



Image credits: Wonderful Wizard of Oz cover via Wikimedia Commons; others via Karen's Whimsy.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Oh I very much agree with you on this.

    I loathe all these dumbed down versions of classic books and these horrible 'digested reads.'

    Children should and must be challenged sometimes by their reading material and it is in rising to that challenge that they learn and develop their own language and their appreciation.

    Further, as a writer, I know how much care and effort goes in to choosing and crafting every word and phrase. Let alone, I say!