The Problem with Abridged Classics for Children

For some reason the children’s publishing world loves abridged classics. Every major publisher has a series of them. Some publishers even specialize in them. It seems that just about any “classic” work of fiction is eligible for abridgment too, regardless of the length, intended audience’s age, or even the “reading level” of the original. As long as it’s old enough to be considered a classic, it’s probably going to be abridged. The problem that I have with abridgments is that it makes an assumption about fiction that I take issue with. It assumes that the work is most valuable and most appealing because of the story told, not because of the writing, language, format or anything else. But a book is not just a story.

To better understand what I mean by this, try reading the text of a great picture book removed from the book, just written out like this blog post is (Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon work great for this). Is it the same as reading the book with the pictures, the page breaks and the design elements that give the book personality (even the ones you might not consciously think about as you read, like where the text is placed on the page). The story might still be good, even without the rest of the elements that make it a picture book, but it’s not the same experience at all.

Another way to think about it is to consider remakes of films. Both versions of a movie might be really good, but they aren’t at all the same. The original Oceans 11 may have essentially the same plot as the remake, but they are far from the same movie. Not only are the scripts different, but the actors, cinematography, sets, lighting, directing, everything is different. What remains the same is the plot, but that doesn’t make them the same, or even equivalent, movies.

So how does this all relate to abridged classic books? When you consider what makes a classic a classic, it’s actually not usually just the story (although the story certainly matters). Little Women isn’t perennially popular just because it’s a good story about four sisters growing up. Part of what makes it such a great book is the writing and the voice – when you read Alcott’s book, you’re hearing her fictionalization of her own teenage years and those of her real sisters and it shows. Her love for her family, her values, her passion and her struggles, and her real understanding of the nuances of how hard it is to be a teenage girl, a sister, a daughter and a friend. Just pulling out the events and abridging them loses those nuances and that voice, because they aren’t that present in the events themselves, but are present in how she writes those events. It’s not that Meg wanted a silk dress that’s so interesting (just telling us she wanted a silk dress but they couldn’t afford one makes her sound pretty selfish), it’s how Alcott describes her quiet longing for the dress and her worries over her family’s situation that tell us who Meg is, why it matters and why we should care.

And being old enough to read a book (or appreciate it being read to you), often indicates the maturity level needed to really appreciate the story as well. Obviously, this isn’t always true for kids that read very early, but for the average kid, it’s pretty reliable. Books mean more to us when they’re read at the right time. For example, one of my favorite books ever is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. I read it for the first time my freshman year of college and a big part of why it meant so much to me then is that it spoke to a lot of what I was going through at the time. I could have read it in middle school if someone had given it to me then, and I might even have found parts of it interesting, but it wouldn’t have meant that much to me because I wouldn’t have been able to relate to it.

Another example from my life would be Anne of Green Gables. I clearly tried to read it too young and found it massively boring. To this day, I’ve never managed to get all the way through it because my impression of it being boring is still pretty strong. I’m sure it’s a fabulous book, though, because it’s got so much history and so many devoted fans and has inspired so much passionate scholarship for so long. I just have trouble appreciating it because I encountered it at entirely the wrong time. I could read it, but when I attempted it, I just found that I didn’t care enough about what was in it to do so at the time.

Basically, my point is that I think that if you want to give people the best chance of enjoying a book, you should give them both the real book and try not to give it to them too early. First impressions last a long time and if they remember having read The Secret Garden and not really caring about it in third grade, chances are they aren’t going to try it again in fifth when they really might enjoy it. Abridgments come in here because they make it very easy to give books too early and it’s a lot harder to have a passionate positive reaction to one because there just isn’t as much to love and the writing typically isn’t as remarkable.

So what do I think people should do to get kids to read classics? First and foremost, don’t make a big deal about them being classics. They’re just books. Second, try to give them around the right time. This involves some thinking ahead. Why are you giving this book? Did you love it as a kid? How old were you? Try to give it at around that same age. Does the kid in question love the topic and you think they might really like the book (Treasure Island and the works of Jules Verne are often given for this reason)? Flip through the book and think about if it’s something you think the kid could actually read right now, based on what you know they are already reading. If you think it’s going to be too hard (or even if you aren’t quite sure, but think it might be), but you don’t want to wait because the kid is really interested in the topic right now, give it to them in an audio book format. That way the “reading level” can be somewhat above their skill level and they can still enjoy it. Audio books are awesome and most popular classics are available from multiple readers, so you can find one you like if you really want the right audio book.

Make sure to think about why you want them to read the book before you get it. Do you want to share a favorite book with them? Share the book you loved, not an abridgment which might not even have the elements that made you love the book. Do you think it’s a great work of literature and that they should read it? Consider what makes it a great work. Remember, Shakespeare isn’t famous because he wrote great stories (he didn’t – nearly all of his plays are retellings of stories from somewhere else), he’s famous because of how he told the stories. Do you think reading classics would be “good for them”? Just don’t. This is never a good basis for buying a kid a fictional book. Think about how you felt about things you were given because they were “good for you” when you were a kid. They usually aren’t popular with the kid in question, and you’ll probably remember feeling that way if you spend some time to think about it. Classics are awesome, but give them because you think the kid would like them, not because they’re some kind of literary vitamin. And if they were some kind of literary vitamin, it seems unlikely that an abridged version would have the same benefits as the actual, orgininal book, doesn’t it?

Book: Marwe: Into the Land of the Dead

Marwe: Into the Land of the Dead
Marie P. Croall
illustrated by Ray Lago and Craig Hamilton
2009 (Graphic Universe/Lerner)

This is a story from eastern Africa about a girl who visits the land of the dead. It has many of the hallmarks of tales about lands of the dead from other parts of the world as well as some fairy tale elements, but it’s also distinctly different in flavor. I don’t know much about the area or culture that the story originates from, but the story was beautiful and intriguing.

This story sort of had three distinct sections. The first was the part of the story in Marwe’s village before she travels to the land of the dead, the second part focuses on her journey and what happens during her stay in the magical other world, and the third part tells about what happens after she returns to her family and village in the real world. Of the three, I found the third part the most fascinating. It focused on Marwe’s search for her true love and rejection of numerous other suitors. Most fascinating to me was that she didn’t simply wait for her destined husband, asking each suitor his name and refusing those that didn’t match, as many fairy tale maidens do. Her search was an active one, even though she had more than enough men coming to her so that it didn’t actually have to be.

The illustrations in this book were colorful, but not always as expressive as I would have liked. Despite the visual storytelling format, I found myself having to rely almost entirely on the text for clues to personality and emotion because of the lack of facial expressions and other visual clues throughout the story. There were lots of details concerning the setting, but the people themselves (and even what they wore, much of the time) seemed to have been less carefully illustrated. It was somewhat disappointing.

Despite the shortcomings of the art, the text is well done and it’s so nice to find such an interesting story from Africa that I haven’t seen retold in book form before. This was a fun book to read and introduced me to a great story that I had been previously unfamiliar with. I would definitely recommend it. I wish that I found more African stories being rewritten for new audiences like this one has been, but they are nowhere near as common as I would wish.

- Publisher’s Description

- Ray Lago’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

The Reverse Jane Austen Principle

If you watch a movie or cartoon or pick up a comic that involves a group of main characters you’re likely to find a mix of people in that group. Some white guys, maybe a black guy or an Asian guy, a girl or two and possibly a pet or sidekick of some kind. The stories involving groups like this vary. They could be solving mysteries or saving their planet or just kicking bad-guy butt. Regardless, one thing is virtually for certain – the girls will all have romance somehow worked into their description or plot.

I call this the Reverse Jane Austen Principle. The name was the result of an attempt to explain this issue to someone asking me questions about comic books. In trying to explain it, I found that the simplest way to phrase what I was saying was this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged by the entertainment industry that a female character in possession of a name and a ringless left hand must be in want of a boyfriend (and the name is really optional).

The characters aren’t always (or even often) exclusively there to be someone’s romantic interest or to moon over boys, often they have very interesting characters beyond this and frequently they’re interesting, powerful characters in their own right. But that romance thing does seem to always be there, which is not always true for male characters who have equally interesting, powerful character descriptions.

This means that you get things like the Justice League cartoon from a few years back, which had seven main characters, each a powerful hero. Of the seven, there were two who were women. Hawkgirl fell in love with Green Lantern during the course of the show and had a very complicated relationship with him and Wonder Woman got pretty squarely paired up with Batman, although they never did anything about this romance and all indications showed more affection on her side than his anyway. Of the three men remaining, everyone already knows that Superman is already taken by the mostly off-screen Lois Lane, J’on J’onzz is still busy mourning his dead wife (and probably considered too alien for a romance anyway) and Flash is something of a chronic flirt who never has a date. Even when they opened up the League and had more than enough female characters they could have paired those guys up with, they clearly never felt the need to do so. But Hawkgirl had to pine for GL even after he started seeing someone else and Wonder Woman was paired with Batman even though it made no sense for either of their characters.

The Reverse Jane Austen Principle means that Hollywood can’t seem to tell stories about women characters at all without injecting that bit of romance. It’s like they can’t imagine romance not being a fundamental part of any woman’s life, even if it doesn’t have to be so to men. For example, there is a movie coming out soon about a very influential Hawaiian princess who lived near the end of the nineteenth century and fought the annexing of her kingdom by the United States government. It’s called Princess Kaiulani (her name should have an apostrophe in it, but apparently they decided to drop it for some reason). The movie creates a romance for her that never existed and sets it as a major focus of the piece. In fact, the tagline is “her heart was torn between love and the future of Hawaii”. Except that it wasn’t.

I can’t think of a good biopic about a man to compare this to, actually. There are tons of movies about politicians with no injected romance (off the top of my head are All the President’s Men, Nixon and Thirteen Days, but there are tons of them). So why does the girl need romance? Every movie about Queen Elizabeth I that I’ve ever seen focuses more on her supposed romances with her courtiers than it does on her as a political leader (granted her father has the same problem, but he sort of made that bed for himself and now he’s stuck with it). Queen Victoria is the same way. She had a very long reign and a lot happened while she was queen, but the movies about her all seem to focus on her romances (real or imagined).

Comics seem to be just as bad. Unless a girl has green or purple skin (and even then it’s not a guarantee), she’s bound to be wrapped up in some relationship plot within just a couple of issues of her introduction! There was a really entertaining short run comic a few years back called Teen Titans Year One. It told some stories about the original Titans getting together and doing missions, but it sort of set them now instead of when they actually were a newly formed team (Robin IMed Kid Flash about a mission, for example). The original Teen Titans consisted of four boys and a girl – Wonder Girl. The boys all had plots involving their mentors being possessed and struggling with their roles within the group and things like that. What was Wonder Girl’s plot? She had a crush on Speedy and they went on a date at one point. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved this comic. It told a great story in a funny, fresh way. But it totally adhered to the Reverse Jane Austen Principle, too.

There are occasionally exceptions to this principle, but they are extremely rare. Nerd girls can slip through relationship-free every once in a great while, but it’s very, very difficult. Usually they have to at least be pining for someone or aimlessly feeling worthless because they don’t have a guy. One notable nerd girl exception would be Velma from Scooby Doo (she is, however, only an exception if you ignore the movies or consider the characters in them different from the ones in the cartoons). Children can sometimes manage to evade this rule as well, but even they usually get trapped by it. River from Firefly got out of it because of the kid rule (even though she wasn’t actually that young, everyone but the bounty hunter treated her that way). It’s also possible to escape if you’re either the only character or if there are so many girls and so few guys that some girls have to not be paired up. Dora the Explorer, some of the minor characters from She-Ra and Flora from The Winx Club all sneak by this way.

But, sadly, exceptions are rare. For the most part, if a female character is included, she’s going to somehow be tangled in this principle. She might be in a relationship, like Arwen from Lord of the Rings. She might start out single but end up in a relationship, like Leia from Star Wars. She might be done with him, but can’t get disentangled, like Rachel from the recent Batman movies. She might be pining for someone specific, like Elisa from Gargoyles. She might be trying to avoid the whole thing and end up caught in a relationship anyway, like Megara in Hercules. She might be just pining for romance without anyone in particular in mind, like Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. And she might be minding her own business and have it thrown at her anyway, like Captain Amelia from Treasure Planet! Regardless, it’s everywhere. Few female characters can escape it.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have amazing characters and fantastic stories that follow the Reverse Jane Austen Principle because you can. Many of the movies, shows and comics I’ve mentioned are great and totally worth watching or reading. That said, I’d really like to see this stop being such a rule. I’d like to see more movies that don’t feel the need to make sure every female character is somehow either connected to a guy or wants to be. Just because she’s not married, doesn’t mean she necessarily has to want to be (or even spend much time thinking about it, because seriously, if my planet was blowing up or something, I wouldn’t stop to bemoan my lack of boyfriend). If Legolas, Buzz Lightyear and Obi-Wan Kenobi don’t need love interests, why do most female characters created by the entertainment industry need one?

Update: Gen Con Wants Designs for SPA Icon!

Gen Con sent out a newsletter today that announced a contest asking for new icon designs for the SPA program! From the newsletter:

Gen Con is looking for an icon to represent its “SPA-Activities for the Better Half” program for 2011 and beyond. SPA stands for SPousal Activities and is dedicated to the “gamer widow” or “widower”. It is open to all gamers and non-gamers alike.

Submissions will be accepted starting May 24th with voting taking place onsite at Gen Con Indy. The winner will be announced after the show! Details and information about the contest can be found on our community site in the download section.

It doesn’t sound like we’ll have a new icon for this year’s convention, but they clearly heard the complaints and decided to do something about it for the future. Now hopefully some of the fantastic graphic designers and creative members of our community can come up with some good submissions! The “details and information” is in the form of a downloadable zip file and can be found in the SPA section of the Gen Con website.

Book: The Last Dragon

The Last Dragon
C. A. Rainfield
illustrated by Charlie Hnatiuk
2009 (High Interest Publishing)

This is the first book in the Dragon Speaker series, a trilogy about a boy who can telepathically talk to birds and dragons. When this book starts, there is only one remaining dragon after an evil lord and his pet wizard have systematically destroyed all of the rest of the dragons and brought the kingdom under their tyrannical thumbs. Jacob, a farm boy living in a small town at the edge of the forest, can talk to birds. He is told by a crow that he must find the last dragon and save her and that the evil wizard had a stone with which he could control her. Jacob and his friend Orson set out to find this dragon, running into a girl, Lia, who wants to help them along the way.

I really wanted to like this book. The need for books written at a low reading level but with an older audience in mind is very much there, and this publisher specializes in this particular niche. I think that the books that have the best chance of working well for the readers who need these types of books, however, are going to have to be of excellent quality, particularly in story. These books are designed for readers who, for the most part, have struggled with reading and many have all but given up by the time they become teenagers. To get them to go that extra mile and read something it needs to really appeal to them, really be something special that grabs their attention. And I just didn’t feel like this lived up to that. In fact, I felt like it fell far short of it.

The story is eerily similar to that of Eragon (which, I realize, is already drawn from any number of other sources). The writing itself isn’t bad – it’s actually simple and flows the way I would expect an early chapter book to flow. The problem is really with the story. The characters are incredibly one-dimensional, the events largely unbelievable (even for a fantasy story) and while there are bloody battles, it’s hard to take the threats very seriously. The lord and his wizard are defeated with a flock of birds and a loaf of bread! It’s hard to take a wizard who can be defeated by a loaf of bread very seriously!

The artwork is odd. The faces are expressive (and generally the focus of the picture), but also strangely lumpy. In fact, everything is strangely lumpy. And while they do feel generically fantasy or medieval in style, none of the fantasy elements are shown in any of the pictures! Despite the large amount of the text focusing on the dragon and her egg, neither appears in any of the illustrations. The dragon herself does appear on the cover, which is done by a different artist. At several points in the story we see spells or magic happening, but none of those scenes are illustrated. It’s rather disappointing, actually. I’m not sure this book needed art at all, but I would have wished for better since they did feel the need to include it.

I was extremely disappointed in the poor quality of this book. I think that it’s so important that there be books written at this level with an older audience in mind, but I think that this one in particular either shows too little respect for its audience or its story (and I’m honestly not sure which). I applaud this publisher for focusing on this much-needed niche, but I would hope that they would have higher standards for their books. Teens deserve unique books written and illustrated well regardless of their reading level. I have not read any of their non-fantasy books, so those might be of better quality, but I have little interest in reading the rest of this series. I found it to be poor in quality and I would never recommend it.

- Publisher’s Description

- C. A. Rainfield’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon