Modernizing the March Family

Over the past few days, I have begun watching the YouTube series “The March Family Letters”. This is from the same team that did “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and “Frankenstein, M.D.” (among others). This time they are retelling Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

I’m twenty episodes in (just over half of what has been posted so far) and I’m not actually sure how I feel about it yet. Like the previous adaptations from this group, it’s a modern vlog retelling of the classic novel. Unlike the previous shows, I’m not as convinced by their modern updates to this particular story. I like the series, but it doesn’t feel like Little Women to me.

Since I think Meg has gone through the most change from book to show, I’m going to start with and sort of focus on her. Meg is the oldest sister and perhaps the one I identified most with in the books. She was very well-rounded there. Alcott’s Meg is a responsible woman who is clearly capable of all the things a proper woman did (running a frugal, yet inviting household, caring for a family, coping in a crisis, etc.), but also a young woman able to dream of what she wants and enjoy the little pleasures around her. She clearly feels their poverty in ways the younger sisters don’t and isn’t happy about it, but she still manages to appreciate the ways they are lucky.

The Meg portrayed in “The March Family Letters” is rather different. She is clearly still a highly responsible woman, but at times it’s almost too her detriment in ways I never felt it was in the book. She feels older and almost bitter in some ways and when she talks about girlish pleasures (parties and fashion), it always seems to have a sarcastic quality instead of being genuine pleasure. I like that she is both working towards a career (although I question if any of the March girls would work so hard towards a career she doesn’t actually want) and wanting the family and kids future where she can be a stay-at-home mom. I’m just not so sure I see Meg in this young woman who is paranoid about poverty enough to study something she doesn’t care much about and who seems to not see the point in things that exist only for pleasure.

In the series, John Brooks (Meg’s eventual husband) is transformed in Joan Brooks. I am not sure about this change yet, although I very much like Joan’s character. The problem is that she doesn’t feel that much like John Brooks to me. I’m also not sure what it means for Meg’s future in the story. I love the idea of them having a relationship and getting married and all, but part of Meg’s story was that she was the conventional sister. She led the life she was expected to lead and was happy in it – she was the proof that you could absolutely be happy in that role, which I think was a really important element of the feminist message of Alcott’s book. She clearly shows through Meg that you can be feminist and conventional at the same time – it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. The point is to be able to choose whatever you want, and that means conventional choices are allowed too. So what does this change do for Meg’s conventionality? On the one hand, if done well it could go a long way to giving a normalizing image of a lesbian relationship, but on the other hand it is unconventional in the world we live in today and so the very change in and of itself changes the quality of Meg’s conventionality. I suppose I’ll have to wait and see.

Jo is definitely different in the series from in the book. Instead of being a tomboy, she’s a hardcore feminist. I think that Alcott would absolutely have approved of this and it definitely makes sense. The only issue I have with it is that the change (so far, at least) sort of erases Jo’s personal struggles with the very fact that she is unconventional. I found those struggles to be a particularly fascinating part of the book and hope they aren’t gone entirely. There’s presumably a lot of show left, so perhaps we simply haven’t seen it yet.

Beth is still the sweet, quiet, shy girl from the books. Because of this, we don’t see her that much except when she is singing and playing her guitar. For the fiction of the vlog, that makes a lot of sense. I have little idea, however, if the rest of her personality and character are there to be found or not. In the books, she cares for kittens and dolls, is too shy for school and stays entirely at home, and is happy simply surrounded by her family. Elements of this are here, but the character is older and I think that changes some of these things. We don’t see the kittens or dolls and I have no reason to believe so far that she did not go all the way through regular schooling, but we don’t know. I’m also not sure how they’ll handle her later. I think I need to wait and see more of Beth to really have much opinion on her, but I think she’s a particularly interesting challenge for a project like this.

They’ve done a great job with Amy. We’ve seen precious little of her physical vanity, but her flamboyant and artistic nature as well as her inability to compromise have absolutely come out. Overall, she definitely “feels” like a modern Amy. I’ll be interested to see how they handle her character development, but so far I think she’s probably the one who feels the most accurate to me.

Obviously, I fully intend to watch more of this series. I don’t feel like it is as close an adaptation as some of their previous series’ were, but I think that they are doing some really interesting things and I want to see how they end up working out. One of the virtues of the show is definitely that if you don’t know the source material, it is still fully watchable. And for me, the very fact that it does have me thinking so much about the changes and similarities is one of the biggest draws for this kind of project. The analysis itself is one of my favorite parts of the experience.

If you are interested in watching this show or any of their previous adaptations (they’ve so far done Pride and Prejudice, Sanditon (one of Jane Austen’s unfinished works), Emma, Frankenstein, and Little Women), check out Pemberley Digital on YouTube.

A Plea for Poor Girls in YA

Dear everyone in YA publishing,

*Please* can we get some books about scrappy poor girls with lots of character instead of an endless string of books about debutants and girls “suddenly thrown into the lap of luxury” and the like? They’re fine once in a while, but I’m more than a little tired of a constant parade of “poor little rich girl” stories and photo covers with tacky prom dress-clad models (including many who are trying pretty pathetically to look historical in their tacky mall prom dresses).

Please, somebody go back and remember that some of the best stories have been about overcoming challenges that have nothing to do with pretentious boarding schools or arranged marriages to Venician dukes or not being able to get this season’s “It” bag because your mother has decided to cancel your sixteen credit cards in a cruel and completely unwarranted bout of insanity.

Some of the best stories have had to do with overcoming hardships like finding ways to afford necessities, escaping enslavement or crushing prejudice, and coping with the basic and universal truths of growing up (achieving greater independence; increasing responsibilities; changing relationships with parents, siblings, friends and romantic interests; etc.). There are so many great stories that have *nothing* to do with being pretty and rich and privileged and some of those stories are so incredibly valuable.

Little Women has been a classic almost since the day it was published and the girls in that story have almost nothing. The book *starts* with a comment about there being no money for Christmas gifts and one of the most memorable moments in the book is Jo selling her hair to have money to pay for her mother’s trip to nurse her sick father who has been away fighting in the Civil War. No riches here – just character building through family and life experience.

Today it seems like YA shelves are filled with series books about private academies with cute uniforms and too much money to spend on dances and teas, flouncy historical fictions about second daughters who need to marry rich men for vague reasons that are never fully explained and (inexplicably) normal girls who are suddenly thrown into lives of lavish wealth and excess for reasons that are somewhat unclear and probably don’t matter anyway. Many of the books feel more like excuses to drop the names of designer labels or describe fancy parties with corseted women and dashing Darcy-clones than like actually interesting stories.

Most of us do not wear Chanel dresses to drink too much with our dreamy boyfriends and historical fiction tends to be more interesting when there’s more to it than a couple of bratty girls in corsets flirting too much and trying to get proposed to fastest. Story matters and for a good story, you need conflict. I’m absolutely not saying that a rich girl can’t have conflict enough in her life for a good story, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to work a little harder to show it to me. A poor girl has conflict built into her daily life, even when her family and friends are as loving as can be.

Besides, I really want stories that illustrate that there’s more to life than Dior dresses and making sure you have the handsomest guy on your arm for the party. I want characters with depth and personality, characters I can relate to and sometimes even aspire to be like, characters who I can learn from. I want more than fan fiction and ads for Vogue and everything in it.

There is so much possibility out there, please tell a more varied set of stories! I am tired of every cover having a fancy gown and every description including the words “incredible wealth” or “exclusive boarding school”. Give me some public school girls, some scrappy inner city kids, some farm girls, maybe even some soldier girls and characters with *gasp* jobs at retail and food-service places. Give me stories about the kinds of people I see every day and the kinds of girl I might have been had I lived in another era.

From an avid reader

I Miss Stan Berenstain

I miss Stan Berenstain. Since his death, his son Mike has been writing the Berenstain Bears series with Jan (Stan’s wife, who has been writing the series with Stan since early on) and what used to be a great series about common childhood experiences like sibling rivalry and bullying and bad dreams has become filled with constant preachy Christian titles.

Now, I don’t have anything against Christian books or anything, but I liked that it was a more or less secular series that any kid could read and relate to. Now new titles are all about finding the Christian version of God, learning to pray and going to Sunday School.

I thought there were a few issues with the series before (the book where Momma decides to get a job is a particularly problematic title), but most of the time it did a good job of keeping Brother and Sister on equal footing without making them the same person and of respecting the feelings and troubles of children without vilifying their parents or teachers. That’s (sadly) not something that I find nearly enough. I simply want to continue to be able to recommend and count on this series for those great qualities.

True, all those good titles are still there, but now almost every new title coming out (and new titles are often the ones that monopolize the shelves in bookstores) are these super religious ones. That’s simply kind of disappointing. And I guess that’s what I wanted to say about it today.

Twain on Patriotism

This is a brilliant passage from Autobiography of Mark Twain, dated January 24, 1906, about what patriotism and responsible voting means.

“But we don’t have to vote for him.”

Robinson said “Do you mean to say that you are not going to vote for him?”

“Yes,” I said, “that is what I mean to say. I am not going to vote for him.”

The others began to find their voices. They sang the same note. They said that when a party’s representatives choose a man, that ends it. If they choose unwisely it is a misfortune, but no loyal member of the party has any right to withhold his vote. He has a plain duty before him and he can’t shirk it. He must vote for that nominee.

I said that no party held the privilege of dictating to me how I should vote. That if party loyalty was a form of patriotism, I was no patriot, and that I didn’t think I was much of a patriot anyway, for oftener than otherwise what the general body of Americans regarded as the patriotic course was not in accordance with my views; that if there was any valuable difference between being an American and a monarchist it lay in the theory that the American could decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn’t; whereas the king could dictate the monarchist’s patriotism for him—a decision which was final and must be accepted by the victim; that in my belief I was the only person in the sixty millions—with Congress and the Administration back of the sixty millions—who was privileged to construct my patriotism for me.

They said “Suppose the country is entering upon a war—where do you stand then? Do you arrogate to yourself the privilege of going your own way in the matter, in the face of the nation?”

“Yes,” I said, “that is my position. If I thought it an unrighteous war I would say so. If I were invited to shoulder a musket in that cause and march under that flag, I would decline. I would not voluntarily march under this country’s flag, nor any other, when it was my private judgment that the country was in the wrong. If the country obliged me to shoulder the musket I could not help myself, but I would never volunteer. To volunteer would be the act of a traitor to myself, and consequently traitor to my country. If I refused to volunteer, I should be called a traitor, I am well aware of that—but that would not make me a traitor. The unanimous vote of the sixty millions could not make me a traitor. I should still be a patriot, and, in my opinion, the only one in the whole country.”

Twain’s autobiography is fantastic and I highly recommend it (although it’s also heavy, so be careful not to drop it on yourself, it could probably break a foot without too much trouble!). This passage is one of the most brilliant ones I’ve come across and I simply had to share it.

Goodbye Oracle, Goodbye DC Comics

As has been much publicised, DC Comics has sort of rebooted their universe. Except they aren’t wiping the slate clean this time – they are rebooting their characters, but somehow leaving their histories in tact as well (I still haven’t quite figured out that one). As far as I can tell, it’s another case of a comic book company handwaving away a lot of great stories because they would rather be nostalgic or maybe start over with their own revised versions. While one of the biggest stated intentions of this is to draw in new readers, I’m skeptical. The changes seem to me more likely to lose readers they have than to attract readerships they have not previously attracted.

There have already been some great illustrations of this with Starfire (this article and this comic, for example) and others. I think that DC has forgotten that there are more readers in the world than the ones they have been writing for over the last several decades. The comics world is constantly in need of more money, more sales, more readers. And those readers are out there – the appeal of their characters is far more widespread than the sales of their comics would suggest. The numbers of viewers of the animated shows and the big-budget movies and the popularity of the videogames based on their properties are orders of magnitude higher than the numbers of readers of their comics. It doesn’t take a business genius to see that the customers are there, they simply aren’t being reached through the comic book medium.

And those cartoon and movie viewers, those videogamers are all kinds of people – some fall into that white, male pool that the average comic book readers fall into, but there are so much more than that. There are women and people of both genders who are not white and kids and more. And those consumers represent a huge amount of revenue. Comic book shops are always struggling, right? Well, if they could get some of that revenue that they have not attracted before maybe they wouldn’t be struggling so much. Women represent half the population, but only a small fraction of the comic-book buying population. But as a woman I can tell you that when I pick up a comic book, even as a life-long comic book reader, I’m frequently stunned by how violently I feel the message “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU”. That’s the message that Starfire gives to women. She always has had that problem, but is doing so even more in this new incarnation.

For me, the character that drew me to superhero comics the most as a kid was Batgirl because she was a strong girl who chose to be a heroine and then worked to become one, sans superpowers. But what kept me reading superhero comics, as opposed to completely giving them up in favor of other types of stories that were not as likely to scream “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU” at me from the covers and nearly every page, was Oracle.

Oracle was something special. Something beyond capes and tights. She still didn’t have any superpowers (most superpowers would have allowed her to get up out of that chair, whether it was to stand on her feet or fly in the air or something else), but she still managed to be a hero from her wheelchair. And how many disabled heroes are there in the comic book world? The only other one I can think of is Professor X from the X-Men, although it seems like there must have been others over the last century.

Oracle was able to become a powerful character in her own right, completely without borrowing from the mantle of one of the more famous (male) characters, with only her intelligence and willpower. Being paralyzed let her character develop in new and interesting ways that few comic book characters ever get to. She worked hard to overcome the pain and loss (although, realistically, that pain was never completely gone), mastering a new fighting form she could do from her wheelchair, but even more importantly, she found a whole new way to fight the good fight without needing a costume at all.

To me, she was a woman who was able to be powerful and heroic without having to also be a sexy pin-up and by being smart instead of having to have the ability to kick her heels up over her head. The idea of a woman who could be heroic without having to be able to show off her breasts and her butt at the same time was very appealing and the image of a woman who was saving the world by being really smart and doing research was even more appealing. I also found the idea that even in a world with invulnerable people and shapeshifters, some pain and some injuries could not be healed to make the DC Universe something that I am more able to relate to. If everyone is invulnerable and no injury is permanent, then what’s the point?

Apparently DC doesn’t see it that way, though. They have gotten rid of Oracle. That and other changes make me, a life-long reader of DC comics (seriously, I have boxes full of comic books dating back to when I was a kid and even some scavenged from my dad’s childhood collection), ready to give up. I give in. DC Comics, you win. I got the message. Maybe it took nearly 30 years for me to get it, but I finally got it. DC Comics are not for me. And as sad as it makes me that you don’t want my readership and my money, or, apparently, women readers and their money in general, I’ve been trying too hard for too long to get past all of the “NOT FOR YOU” messages. All of the T and A pin-ups. All of the stories with powerless women needing saving or women being destroyed so that male characters would have motivation for a few issues until they forgot all about the women who died for them. I give up. Apparently even in 2011, there is room for a boy’s club and I guess it’s time for me to read that “No Girls Allowed” sign posted out front.

Related Articles:

- The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and Their ‘Liberated Sexuality’
- Oracle is Stronger than Batgirl will Ever Be
- No More Mutants: 52 Problems
- A Response from a Female Comic Book Fan
- Dear DC Comics
- Comics Should Be For Everyone
- Lois Lane, Girl Reporter (Read this one and think about what DC gave up by rejecting this amazing idea!)

Gender-Flipped Classics: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

I realize that I haven’t posted in quite some time and I’m sorry about that, however now I’m back. Today I’m posting a gender-flipped chapter from L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I have done this with fairy tales in the past, but I thought that it might be interesting to do it with pieces of some longer works as well. It’s an interesting exercise to do on all kinds of works, from picture books to poetry to novels, but I’ve been trying to carefully stick to things that are in the public domain to post here. So even though I highly recommend trying out Maxine’s adventures with the Wild Things or Hannah Potter’s battles against dark witches, I’m not going to be able to post those for you. I’m not including a commentary on this one, but I would love to hear what your reactions were after reading it!

Chapter 16: The Magic Art of the Great Humbug

Next morning the Scarecrow said to her friends:

“Congratulate me. I am going to Oz to get my brains at last. When I return I shall be as other women are.”

“I have always liked you as you were,” said Donald simply.

“It is kind of you to like a Scarecrow,” she replied. “But surely you will think more of me when you hear the splendid thoughts my new brain is going to turn out.” Then she said good-bye to them all in a cheerful voice and went to the Throne Room, where she rapped upon the door.

“Come in,” said Oz.

The Scarecrow went in and found the little woman sitting down by the window, engaged in deep thought.

“I have come for my brains,” remarked the Scarecrow, a little uneasily.

“Oh, yes; sit down in that chair, please,” replied Oz. “You must excuse me for taking your head off, but I shall have to do it in order to put your brains in their proper place.”

“That’s all right,” said the Scarecrow. “You are quite welcome to take my head off, as long as it will be a better one when you put it on again.”

So the Wizard unfastened her head and emptied out the straw. Then she entered the back room and took up a measure of bran, which she mixed with a great many pins and needles. Having shaken them together thoroughly, she filled the top of the Scarecrow’s head with the mixture and stuffed the rest of the space with straw, to hold it in place.

When she had fastened the Scarecrow’s head on her body again she said to her, “Hereafter you will be a great woman, for I have given you a lot of bran-new brains.”

The Scarecrow was both pleased and proud at the fulfillment of her greatest wish, and having thanked Oz warmly she went back to her friends.

Donald looked at her curiously. Her head was quite bulged out at the top with brains.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“I feel wise indeed,” she answered earnestly. “When I get used to my brains I shall know everything.”

“Why are those needles and pins sticking out of your head?” asked the Tin Woodwoman.

“That is proof that she is sharp,” remarked the Lion.

“Well, I must go to Oz and get my heart,” said the Woodwoman. So she walked to the Throne Room and knocked at the door.

“Come in,” called Oz, and the Woodwoman entered and said, “I have come for my heart.”

“Very well,” answered the little woman. “But I shall have to cut a hole in your breast, so I can put your heart in the right place. I hope it won’t hurt you.”

“Oh, no,” answered the Woodwoman. “I shall not feel it at all.”

So Oz brought a pair of tinsmith’s shears and cut a small, square hole in the left side of the Tin Woodwoman’s breast. Then, going to a chest of drawers, she took out a pretty heart, made entirely of silk and stuffed with sawdust.

“Isn’t it a beauty?” she asked.

“It is, indeed!” replied the Woodwoman, who was greatly pleased. “But is it a kind heart?”

“Oh, very!” answered Oz. She put the heart in the Woodwoman’s breast and then replaced the square of tin, soldering it neatly together where it had been cut.

“There,” said she; “now you have a heart that any woman might be proud of. I’m sorry I had to put a patch on your breast, but it really couldn’t be helped.”

“Never mind the patch,” exclaimed the happy Woodwoman. “I am very grateful to you, and shall never forget your kindness.”

“Don’t speak of it,” replied Oz.

Then the Tin Woodwoman went back to her friends, who wished her every joy on account of her good fortune.

The Lion now walked to the Throne Room and knocked at the door.

“Come in,” said Oz.

“I have come for my courage,” announced the Lion, entering the room.

“Very well,” answered the little woman; “I will get it for you.”

She went to a cupboard and reaching up to a high shelf took down a square green bottle, the contents of which she poured into a green-gold dish, beautifully carved. Placing this before the Cowardly Lion, who sniffed at it as if she did not like it, the Wizard said:

“Drink.”

“What is it?” asked the Lion.

“Well,” answered Oz, “if it were inside of you, it would be courage. You know, of course, that courage is always inside one; so that this really cannot be called courage until you have swallowed it. Therefore I advise you to drink it as soon as possible.”

The Lion hesitated no longer, but drank till the dish was empty.

“How do you feel now?” asked Oz.

“Full of courage,” replied the Lion, who went joyfully back to her friends to tell them of her good fortune.

Oz, left to herself, smiled to think of her success in giving the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodwoman and the Lion exactly what they thought they wanted. “How can I help being a humbug,” she said, “when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done? It was easy to make the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Woodwoman happy, because they imagined I could do anything. But it will take more than imagination to carry Donald back to Kansas, and I’m sure I don’t know how it can be done.”

Book: The Pyramid of Souls

The Pyramid of Souls
Erica Kirov
2010 (Sourcebooks)

Since the events of The Eternal Hourglass, Nick has grown more accustomed to his new family and his new life at the Winter Palace (except for the food). His magic has improved and his friendship with his cousin Isabella has grown stronger. As magicians from around the world arrive at the Winter Palace for the yearly magic conference held there, however, it becomes clear that the Shadowkeepers are preparing to strike again. This time the mysterious Pyramid of Souls, the key to the very souls of the Magickeepers themselves, is at stake. With his growing powers and some newfound friends from Egypt, Nick will have to find a way to retrieve the Pyramid and save the Magickeepers trapped inside.

Much like the first book, this one was a lot of fun. Kirov spent less time illustrating the Winter Palace and Las Vegas for her readers in this book and instead focused on deepening the personalities of the lead characters. Isabella in particular became considerably more fully fleshed out in this volume. I felt like the plot of this book was not quite as strong as the plot of The Eternal Hourglass, but it was still a pretty good plot. The book also managed to help build the world and history of magic more, which is very important in a series like this, and so a plot-weak volume isn’t that bad.

Kirov’s prose is delightful and she writes about the stage performances and rehearsals particularly well. I could really feel the energy and tension in some of her performance scenes. Since those scenes tend to be pivotal to the plot and placed at key points throughout the book, this did a lot to help guide the flow of energy throughout the book as well. I wasn’t sure after the first book how much I would want to continue reading this series, but after reading this volume I’m certain that I’d keep reading more and that I’d recommend this series without qualm to anyone who enjoys novel fantasies.

This book very much depends on the reader having read the first volume, The Eternal Hourglass, but it is still an enjoyable book in it’s own right and hopefully Kirov will continue this series in the future. Nick and Isabella are fun, engaging characters and the Las Vegas setting is different and goes a long way to provide a mood and feel for the series that is quite unique. I’d like to see Isabella get a more active role in the plot itself in future books, but Kirov has so far done a great job of generally keeping her a strong and appealing character despite her needing to be rescued in this volume. I will definitely keep my eye out for more from this series and from this author.

- Publisher’s Description
- The Official Magickeepers Website

- Erica Kirov’s Blog

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School
Candace Fleming
2007 (Schwartz and Wade/Random House)

The fourth graders at Aesop Elementary School are certainly unique and it’s not hard to see why no teacher wanted to take them on. Lucky for them, Mr. Jupiter, the world-traveling teacher with experience doing just about everything in the world came along and volunteered. Each chapter of the book tells one nearly self-contained story, often focusing on a single character or a small group of characters, and ending in a moral. Most of the chapters are clever reworkings of some of Aesop’s classic fables (such as The Tortoise and the Hare or The Boy who Cried Wolf) and they all link together to tell a larger, overarching story about the school year from beginning to end.

This is certainly an ambitious book and I was initially skeptical about how well it would flow and about the fable reworkings themselves, but Fleming does an amazing job. While the kids are over the top, she makes the clear from the outset and each character’s personality remains consistent throughout the entire book – so the kid who is a know-it-all and always does his homework in the story where that’s the point is like that in every other story as well. There are characters that are appealing (like the kid who always loses things, but is honest about what belongs to her and what doesn’t) and characters who aren’t (like the kid who pretends to lose things and then lies about what belongs to her to get cool new stuff), but all are reasonably believable, which is a pretty remarkable achievement for fable characters.

The writing is pitch perfect for this book. It has the storytelling cadence of fairy tales or fables, but sticks firmly to the language and style of ordinary middle-grade novels, reflecting the interesting blend that the story itself happens to be. The result is a book that reads aloud amazingly well (this would be a fantastic classroom read-aloud). There was a lot of creativity in the execution of this book, both in the style and the particulars of how the fables were adapted. The author is coming out with a sequel later this year, The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, and I will be interested to see if she can manage to produce another book with this concept that is just as good.

I highly recommend this book. It’s fun and different and the author really managed to create some unique and fresh takes on classic fables. This would be a great addition to a school or classroom library and reads aloud incredibly well. The characters are in fourth grade, so the humor is often at about that level, but it would also be well suited to an audience a little younger or even quite a bit older (I’d say up through middle school could likely appreciate it just fine).

- Publisher’s Description

- Candace Fleming’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

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

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