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?

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