Once upon a time, there were classic books. And there were children who read those books — as soon as they were old enough. There were, sometimes, very patient parents who read those classics to their precocious, patient young children, page by precious page.
Hundreds of years went by this way, sharing the canon with readers only when they were ready for the existential angst of Victor Hugo and the passionate bloodletting of Shakespeare.
That is, until a new millennium dawned, when suddenly babies could, quite literally, chew on Jane Austen while they smashed their dinner peas, and bug-loving toddlers could dig into My First Kafka after a productive day of hunting beetles in the sandbox.
In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially began recommending that parents begin reading aloud to their children starting at birth in order to prevent education and opportunity gaps that emerge when those kids are as young as 18 months old. Conveniently, publishers in recent years have filled the marketplace with adaptations of even the most unlikely classics for tots, such as Pride and Prejudice counting primer board books and, for the slightly older kid crowd, graphic novels adapted from the likes of Dickens (Bah! Humbug?).
Although abridged versions of classics have always existed, publishers are getting increasingly creative with their adaptations. For example, a new series of books aimed at tweens and teens retells Shakespeare’s classics using text messages and emoji. The series includes titles such as YOLO Juliet and Srysly Hamlet (yes, seriously).
Parents are, like, OMG
This growing kid lit trend hasn’t come without controversy and concerns. Parents might be understandably eager to share their favorite classics with their kids, but some worry that some of the books’ best aspects will be lost if children read an abridged or “dumbed-down” version of the classic.
Books are deemed “classics” for myriad reasons, including storytelling, narrative structure, language, message and historical context. All these things should be taken into consideration when deciding how and when to introduce your child to a classic, whether it’s the original format or an adaptation. Lauren Mayer, a children’s librarian at The Seattle Public Library, emphasizes that there’s not a correct way to introduce your kids to the classics. Instead, she says, the approach varies depending on the book, the child and what aspects of the book the parent wishes to share with the child.
Obviously, a 2-year-old isn’t going to understand the deeper concepts of Moby Dick, Sense and Sensibility or Les Misérables — all of which are now available as board books. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from aspects of such adaptations. With these board books, it’s not about sharing the classic elements in a way that will result in literary comprehension, but rather about introducing children to language and its rhythm at an early age. The practice of reading any book aloud to an infant instills the idea that reading is a fun, positive experience. Plus, why not read something you will enjoy, too?
“If the parents are enjoying the books and it’s clear that they’re having fun reading with their children, that’s going to come through and make it a positive experience that will make [those children] want to read in the future,” Mayer says.
But remember: It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird
While it can be fun to introduce books you love in formats your child can handle, if you are especially passionate about the beautiful language and storytelling of a particular classic, you might want to wait until your child is old enough for the original.
“It’s all about what the parent is hoping to share with the child,” Mayer says. “If their primary interest is sharing the story, then they should use whatever form is best for their child. But if they really want to share their passion for the language and the structure, and they feel that’s what makes it special, then they should wait to read the original out loud.”
Although there’s certainly a market for the growing number of adaptations, Mary Bayne and Kathryn Dennis, booksellers at Mockingbird Books in Seattle, say that customers seem to prefer the original classics rather than adaptations. They note that friends and relatives often seek original versions of the classics as special gifts for the kids in their lives.
Bayne and Dennis say their primary concern with graphic novels and board books is that the emphasis on pictures destroys that magical, imaginative element of reading. Bayne suggests that parents read the originals aloud so the children can use their imaginations to picture the story.
“I think reading without pictures is better for kids, unless the subject matter is very difficult and the pictures clarify the story,” Dennis says.
When a parent and child read together, it allows the child to ask questions and process elements of the plot that may be confusing to them. At The Seattle Public Library, librarians encourage parents to continue reading aloud to their children, even when the child is older and reading independently. “They can read aloud or take turns reading to each other. It’s a great way to share the classics,” Mayer says.
A truth universally acknowledged
Parents frequently seek out beloved classics from their own childhoods when looking for a book to read with their kids. This is a great place to start, because their love for the novel will come through as they read it out loud.
Mayer emphasizes that we certainly shouldn’t dismiss adaptations altogether — rather, they should be evaluated on their own merits. “If a parent really loves Shakespeare or Treasure Island and thinks their child will enjoy the story, I say go for it and share it with your child, even if it’s abridged or edited in some way.”
It is likely that by introducing the literature to children in a format they can process, they will be more comfortable or interested in picking up the original in a few years when they are able to understand the text.
And whatever the format, don’t get too stuck in the past.
When parents seek out recommendations, booksellers and librarians are keen to introduce “new classics” that reflect the growing awareness of diversity in the publishing industry. While older classics reflect the publishing industry’s biases of certain eras, works by authors of color, such as Jerry Pinkney and Christopher Paul Curtis, are finally beginning to get the recognition they deserve.
The following websites offer recommendations for reading aloud as a family, along with new classics:
- Family Read-alouds
- Children’s Classic Fiction
- New York Public Library: 100 Great Children’s Books
- New York Review Children’s Collection