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?

17 Comments

  1. Anemone said,

    May 25, 2010 at 8:05 am

    My mother loaned me her copy of Jane Eyre to read when I was 13, and I was just the right age. Then I had to give it back. :P

    On the other hand, I had to read The Great Gatsby in high school, and it was wasted on me. I reread it in my late 30s and loved it. It really is a good book, just wasted on me in high school. Ditto for Catcher in the Rye for some reason.

    I agree with abridgements not being a good thing. That’s what movies are for. I was disappointed that I had to read an abridged translation of The Count of Monte Cristo, when I couldn’t find a full length version in English. It still bothers me what I might have missed.

  2. Monica said,

    May 25, 2010 at 11:28 am

    My goodness!!! I read Little Women when I was 11 and a half, and then I read Jane Eyre when I was 11 too!! And they where the real thing!!! Plus they where really good… and I am happy to say they where not abridged!

    Monica

  3. Alan De Smet said,

    May 25, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    I think there is a bit too much of a focus on pushing Great Literature on children. This leads to grown adults who are avid readers but still nurse deep grudges against book like Moby Dick (waves to valleyviolet), The Great Gatsby (me), or Madame Bovary. I expect this same mindset is behind the idea that abridging a Great Book will somehow make it more palatable to an otherwise disinterested child.

    Of course all this ties back into my belief that wee need to encourage children to read, but be relatively free on letting them pick what interests them. Sure, it’s likely to be relatively disposable, but once they’re comfortable reading they won’t be daunted by anything. They may still choose to hate, say, Madame Bovary, but they’ll know that they hate it because it’s a terrible book about unlikable characters doing mind bogglingly stupid things, not because they’re “bad at reading.”

    Or is written above, “…give them [classic books] because you think the kid would like them….”

  4. Eva said,

    June 3, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Oh god yes, I still harbor an eternal grudge against Melville. The Catcher in the Rye left me with the feeling that it was a great book that I wasn’t ever going to voluntarily read again. I had a similar feeling with Lord of the Flies; it was painful and unpleasant, but it seemed at the time like something that I needed to read once.

    I’m sure there were some kids my age who those books resonated with in different ways. Different stories speak to different people. I know I did get things out of them, probably things I needed, since I had a relatively sheltered and calm childhood.

    I would say though, that since the focus on education has shifted more towards teaching children _how_ to read rather than encouraging them to love books, abridging classics is just a silly step to take. It’s not going to get more people to read voluntarily if they can’t read well in the first place. Putting things like comics or topically ligher books into kids hands seems like a faster way to solve that immediate crisis.

    I will always think that no one should be forced to read Moby Dick unless they are doing a historical treatise on whaling practices.

  5. Anne said,

    January 25, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Oh my goodness! This is so perfectly worded, and so exactly what I have been thinking about a lot lately but having trouble putting into words. Thank you!
    ~Anne

  6. Steve said,

    May 31, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    I read about 20 abridged classics before I was 10. I loved them! I have now gone back and read several unabridged versions as an adult and enjoyed the different writing styles.

    Why can’t you do both? I did. Anemone, you seem to prefer showing a kid a movie of classic over giving them an abridged book. Personally I would prefer the abridged book because they still have to use reading comprehension and their imagination!

    Just my 2 cents… :)

  7. Rosepixie said,

    June 8, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Steve, it’s not that you can’t do both, it’s that most people don’t. The problem is that generally that isn’t how those books are sold or used. They are used to make the books accessible to kids who probably aren’t ready for them and worse, are often not clearly labelled as abridged so that parents and grandparents who buy them don’t even realize that’s what it is.

  8. isha bali said,

    July 20, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    my problem is that once youv’e read the abridged version, it kills ur curiosity to read the real book, u feel u have already read it.

  9. Violette said,

    August 12, 2011 at 1:45 am

    I completely understand what you mean by the author’s “voice” not getting across in abridged books, especially classics.
    I love the Anne of Green Gables series, but without the details of Anne Shirley’s dreams and fancies, the amazing description Montgomery puts into every passage, the story wouldn’t be the same. Same with The Secret Garden and Pride and Prejudice. The abridged versions hardly do the orginals justice.
    I first read, well, tried to read Jane Eyre when I was 12, and found it a HUGE bore. I am 14 now, and Jane Eyre is one of the best classics I have ever read. :)
    I love this website, by the way! All your posts are very detailed. :D

  10. hsrfan said,

    October 20, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    I have read A Tale of Two Cities, and I am reading Bleak House right now. I am twelve. It just depends on their personality. By the way, they are NOT abridged.

  11. Mliss said,

    February 22, 2012 at 1:17 am

    I don’t know. I’ve always been an advocate and “liver” of filling with experiences and planting seeds, etc. I think there’s a great way to share abridged versions. If you want to amend, and not read, but kinda summarize, story tell, engage, thats fine.. but, I’m thinking, with very very young kids… lets say a 5 year old… they’ll hear this story about this mischevious kid (Tom Sawyer), or that stranded family, their animals, life, survival, adventure, etc… (Swiss Family Robinson)… and have the stories… the richness of words conveying ideas will be there… somewhere deep inside of them… when they come to the story again (if they do), as young adults, or whatever, I believe the story can resonate with them, with familiarity, without them necessarily ever knowing why. Planted seeds. Life connections. And its true, one may never come back in contact with the stories. However, perhaps they never would have.. therefore the proper story, beautiful writing would never have been experienced anyway. But if the story is good, why not give it to a kid to enhance their imaginations? Or to bond over?

    I read probably 20 of those abridged classics to my 9 year old son when he had a bay sister taking up both our time. We tried to move to “real stories” starting with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and its series. We didn’t make it far. the language was more in depth, we couldn’t breeze through it, and his sibling wouldn’t share that much time with us. The whole reading practice scrapped over time. I had worried that my now teen son would feel he read those classics, and get into a pickle (embarrassing situation) if other classmates actually read them. But, if he covers them in school, he’ll read them then, and he’ll have a head start. If he never covers them, then he has the gist of the stories, nothing more. I honestly don’t think its intrigued him to take on these stories on his own, (or that he would’ve ever had I not ” jumped the gun” with them), nor ruined his ability to enjoy them later if he comes to them through whatever other means.

    Down to it, for us, basically, for about a year, we shared alot of quality time, he expanded his vocabulary/comprehension/creativity exploring new ideas, we had something to talk about and do other than video games, and it was enjoyable in the moment. I don’t regret that choice at all.

  12. Aaron said,

    February 29, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    My nephew is thoroughly enjoying an abridged version of Treasure Island, as I’m reading it to him when visiting. If I were to read the full version, there’s not quite enough action to keep his attention yet.
    Then, I found he was reading the full Harry Potters, so I think he’s ready for more horsepower. Several comments are right – at the time, you just can’t appreciate the books at an age. I love doorstop thickness books but that’s just me.
    My younger nephew is just ready to enjoy an adventure abridged book and I’m looking to find some more. Treasure Island has too many scary scenes for him just yet.

  13. Rosepixie said,

    March 16, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I can appreciate that reading to the children in your lives has given you and them many benefits and I support that wholeheartedly, but I guess that my issue here is still with abridged classics.

    Why do the books that you read with them need to be classics, abridged or not? Why not read some of the *many* brilliant action-packed, fun books written at the same level that the abridgments are written at? Why not let the kids read those classics, if they’re going to, later when they *can* really appreciate the language and when the scenes *won’t* be too scary?

    Instead of waiting to see if they get assigned at school in later years, give them copies of the full books when you think they might be ready for them or read them together at that point.

  14. Rich Murphy said,

    March 23, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    Great points, this is an excellent argument. I do agree that we push classics on our kids at a young age (I Know I do). It really, though, depends on the child. My son (5) has read abridged versions of Call of the Wild, Huckelberry Finn, The Wizard of Oz, and is currently reading Journey to the Center of the Earth. He is really engaged in the story. You are absolutely correct in that classics are great based on more than just the story, but MAN the stories of the books he has read so far are SO good. I would be willing to get other books on the same level, (would LOVE some ideas for good contemporary books on that level). For us though, it is more for us just to spend a few hours before bed together. And he seems to like the story. But if he ever gets bored (we tried a version of Tail of Two Cities and he got bored) we will drop it and read something else.

    I sort of compare it to reprints of classic art. Yes there is something magical about seeing a real work of art. But that fact does not take away the beauty of the reprint hanging in a cheap frame in our hallway.

  15. Rosepixie said,

    May 29, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    Rich, I agree that it does depend on the child, but I do not agree that it’s like a reprint of classic art. See, with a reprint, you may lose some fidelity (individual brush strokes, specific hues, etc.), however you still essentially have the whole picture. With an abridgment, you do not have the whole book no matter how you look at it. If you’re lucky, you have the original language, but you’ve still lost a significant chunk of the text and almost certainly the action (usually whole scenes and often whole subplots are excised). In a large number of cases, abridgments are little more than extended summaries – they are completely rewritten with new, modernized language and only the most essential or familiar pieces of the story are included. This is how a Dickens novel can be turned into an early reader. And this is one of the reasons that I have a problem with them – it’s no longer Dickens. It’s a 50 (or 100 or 250 or whatever) page summary.

  16. Katie M said,

    October 19, 2012 at 7:26 am

    I just completed reading this abridged version of Little Women to my kids — thinking that if I was going to read to them, why not a classic that might give them something to recall later in their education. Particularly for my son, who loves to hear stories more than he loves reading them, I thought it might give him something to draw from when he was required to read such literature in school when he is older (he’s 9).
    Reading a good story is always good quality time with my kids, but I was left feeling cheated and bothered by how “abridged” it was. For Pete’s sake, Beth was desperately ill — and then she got all better? I was willing to delay the finer points of the literary value for the story. But this story was deeply stripped – not just of detail, but of its meat. Maybe there is some better middle ground out there. Or – I like your recommendation of an audio book. I’ll give that a try.

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