Introductions to Jane Austen for the “Savvy Parent’s Nursery Library”

“Jane Austen is the pinnacle to which all other writers aspire” –J. K. Rowling

It was a fact universally acknowledged that twelve was the age to attack the novels of Jane Austen until the mid-1990s, when Baby Einstein began catering to the tiger mothers of toddlers.  It is probably no coincidence that since then the number of  introductions to the life and works of Jane Austen for children has exploded–along with the starry film adaptations for fans and families. For the last decade, the firm Babylit has been dedicated to the proposition that classics of Western European literature can be condensed to twelve leaves of “recycled, 100% post-consumer waste, FSC-certified papers or on paper produced from sustainable PEFC-certified forest/controlled wood source.”  Compare the promotional material about the individual titles on the Babylit website to the actual redactions, and the results prove to be not entirely happy.The story of the Dashwood sisters, which revolves around opposites, a staple of the board book genre,  ought to have been a congenial assignment.  According to the blurb on the website, the pairing of characters and places will “launch a literary education for your brilliant child” by encouraging him or her to “observe the life and loves of the Dashwood sisters…Learn the difference between big Norland Park and little Barton Cottage, happy Mr. Willoughby and sad Colonel Brandon, while hoping that one day Elinor and Marianne will leave their single days behind them and celebrate worthy marriages.”  Redactor Allison Oliver expects plot details connecting the pairs of opposites to be supplied by the adult readers presumed to know the novel like the backs of their hands.  Unaccountably the Dashwood sisters are not introduced until the second to last opening and when they are, they are identified as two single girls, not as sisters with opposite personalities. Their differences are symbolized by Elinor’s holding a copy of the 1792 Sensible Quarterly  and Marianne a stem of droopy flowers.  The identity of the grooms on the facing page illustrating “Married” hardly matters, since there is nothing about the courtships.

The hook for Babylit’s Emma is emotions, not class dynamics in the small village of Highbury.  The website blurb assures prospective customers that “Your little one will learn about the meddling Emma Woodhouse, who takes it upon herself to become the village matchmaker, creating all sorts of feelings in others.” The feelings’ are color-coded by iIllustrator Jennifer Adams according to conventional psychological and aesthetic associations, similar to Mary O’Neill’s Hailstones and Halibut Bones: Adventures in Poetry and Color.  Harriet is “sad,” with tears streaming down her turquoise face; the “angry” Mr. Elton is as red as a fire truck; hot pink denotes that Mr. Knightly is “loved;” the cheeks of “tired” Jane Fairfax are dyed deep purple.  As with Sense and Sensibility, the book’s website blurb suggests a way of connecting the discontinuous openings, but that helpful copy appears nowhere in the book. Even the cleverest of improvisors may not succeed in figuring out a way of making toddlers as well-disposed as the author towards the “excited” saffron-yellow Emma, if and when they eventually meet her in the novel.

By increasing the trim size and number of words, Stephanie Clarkson’s Babylit Storybook of Pride and Prejudice promises highlights such as “elegant balls, surprise proposals, and a visit to Pemberley are just a few events to look forward to in this story about appearances, misunderstandings, and love. Quotes from the original text are woven throughout this retelling.” For Mr. Collins’ surprise proposal, Clarkson did not rise to the challenge of crafting an explanation of the entailed estate and without this critical bit of backstory, his motivation for the pursuit of Lizzy is quite puzzling. The only reason he is needed to advance the story is his fortuitous connection with Mr. Darcy through his patroness the Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Churlish old Janeites might condemn Babylit’s concept-driven board books with some justice as primers that serve up confused ideas, as proof that  prereaders cannot be spoon fed these exquisitely written novels about those benighted times when women’s fates, for better or worse, hung upon the marriages they made.   The good news is that it is possible create an accurate, lively introduction to an Austen novel.  Marcia William’s Lizzy Bennet’s Diary (2014) disproves the idea that all  juvenile adaptations of Pride and Prejudice are doomed to failure.  Retold from Elizabeth’s perspective, the story aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds is adorably high-spirited without being cloying and long enough to give the reader the opportunity to laugh Mr. Collins as he searches for a wife, watch Wickham dash those favorable early expectations, and be surprised by the gradual revelation of Mr. Darcy’s noble character. Purists can certainly object that Williams in repacking the novel takes too many liberties adding new material, but most of the details add period flavor without distorting the plot–Lizzy’s sketches of embroidery designs for Mr. Bennet’s new waistcoat, a recipe for chamomile hair wash or the bits of ephemera and letters pasted in a la Jolly Postman.

By the way, Williams is not the only writer to pull off a triumph Lizzy Bennet’s Diary.   Several biographies for children about Austen are in print,  but they are rather dreary.  Very satisfactory alternatives are available in picture books by veteran children’s book author Deborah Hopkinson, the other by novelist Lisa Pliscou.

Two illustrators imagine little Jane in her father’s library. Lower by Qin Leng for Hopkinton’s Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen (2018), the upper by Jen Corage for Lisa Pliscou’s Brave Jane Austen (2018).

While they may not pack quite as much information about Austen’s quiet life as Sarah Fabiny’s Who Was Jane Austen, the writing has more verve and the color illustrations more sparkle.   They give a much better idea of why Austen has more readers now than she did during her lifetime.


Jim Kay’s Wizarding World: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The premise of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is simple:  He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, weak as a newborn, is powerless to reassert his will on the wizarding community.  He schemes to obtain a specimen of Harry’s blood for the spell that will restore him to a human body.  While another victim would do, he relishes the poetic justice of forcing the Boy-Who-Lived to be an accessory.  Until then, the dark lord must carry out his plan through creatures like Wormtail or the pale, hard-eyed Crouch junior, the subject of one of the best portraits in the volume.A lot happens in the 300-odd pages before Harry lands in the Little Hangleton graveyard and squares off with Voldemort.  There are peeks into the Burrow’s cluttered kitchen and  Ron’s memorabilia-cluttered cave.   The flying leprechauns and swaying Veelas  cheer on their teams at the World Quidditch Cup.  The fans party hearty until the dark mark appears in the night sky.   The champions from  Beauxbatons, Durmstrang, and Hogwarts must be chosen for the Tri-Wizard Tournament and unscrupulous journalist Rita Skeeter’s coverage endured.  Creating space for Jim Kay to illustrate and decorate this sprawling narrative as lavishly as the first three shorter volumes meant some clever redesign.  By setting the text in two columns in a smaller font, it was possible to fit the entire story into a 450-page volume uniform with the others. The high point of the art program is the sequence of eight  double-page spreads for the climactic resurrection chapters.  Three spreads lead up to the stone cauldron scene, one portrays the arrival of the Death Eaters, and three dramatize the magical duel.The first part of the section shocks with an illustration of a character dying from an unforgiveable curse.  When Harry and Cedric share the honors by touching the trophy, their act of good sportsmanship drops them into the graveyard’s murky green darkness.  Winning the Tri-Wizard Tournament turns out to be the deadliest game they could have played.  Almost immediately, the young men hear a disembodied voice say “Kill the spare”  to a short man unrecognizable as Peter Pettigrew. When his curse strikes Cedric,  his contorted corpse is silhouetted by blinding greenish-yellow light streaming in all directions. There was no pathos or nobility in the death of Hufflepuff’s champion, the house where Hogwarts places its plodders.The voice, of course, was the dark lord’s.  Up until now, all that has been seen of him was the red eye attached to the back of Quirrell’s head in Philosopher’s Stone.  In the form of Riddle, he was heard, but not seen in the Chamber of Secrets.  He made no appearance in Azkaban.   As Pettigrew prepares to cast the spell, the image of a raw, red, bloody creature out of a nightmare suddenly confronts the reader’s eyes. Kay’s monstrous cross between a human embryo and a diseased crustacean is so much more menacing than Rowling’s words, that the second picture of his skeleton rising out of the cauldron seems a cliché in comparison.   Would it have been more ominous to see Pettigrew stabbing Harry’s arm?  Or more suggestive if the first glimpse of the reembodied dark lord were the cold red eyes and flat nose on pages 396-7?After rebuking the reassembled (and edgy) Death Eaters for their lukewarm loyalty during his thirteen-year-exile, he gives Pettigrew the sign to return Harry’s wand. Voldemort’s next move was to supposed to be dispatching Harry in a farcically unequal fight, but only Ollivander could have predicted how the way their wands would behave in a duel.

 Voldemort’s startling setback is illustrated in six pages with green-black backgrounds.   Seen from below, he looks up with an unfathomable expression at the bead of light Harry has forced to the end of his wand (Harry appears two pages later, after the one of Voldemort and Harry in the eerie yellow cage of light, completing the composition).  The eye goes hard right to Harry’s crouching body, arms outstretched in the effort to hold the wand steady.  To the far left the dark lord’s smaller, less dynamic figure recedes, while the Death Eaters’ larger silhouettes break up the golden beam of light connecting the antagonists.  This spread follows closely Rowling’s words (unavoidably but inconveniently placed after it); yet critical details like the figures of James and Lily hovering over their son are all but lost in the murk.  For all Kay’s boldness, the sequence might have been more intense if there had been less detail.Compared to Harry and the dark lord, the champions of the Tri-Wizard Tournament hardly seem to be in contention.  The magical creatures were given more space, in any event, than the young wizards. The Common Welsh Green dragon, Swedish Short-snout, the Chinese Fireball, and Hungarian Horntail (a relative of Drogon?) imported for the first challenge bristle with spikes and fangs.   A gross of Grindylows lurking below the surface of the Hogwarts lake to as distractions to the champions during the second task are more compelling than the picture following of a splinched Viktor Krum.  The life-cycle of the blast-ended skrewt, a repulsive insect with a pimply pink exoskeleton and a slew of long, skinny legs, is carefully documented before an adult makes an appearance in the maze.  I wouldn’t have missed another picture of the gigantic spiders from the Forbidden Forest if it had been replaced with one of the funny, miserable moments that happen between the tasks, like Harry in the bath room trying to crack his egg while Moaning Myrtle leers.Humor takes a backseat to horror most of the time in Goblet, but when Kay tries to lighten the mood, as in the underdeveloped Viktor Krum/Hermione subplot, the results can be heavy handed.   Krum is introduced to the reader in a splendid poster of him glowering, with broom overhead, every inch the Quidditch star, with nothing of the Durmstrang Academy about him.  Off the Quidditch field, however, he is physically and socially awkward, but he looks like a goon with vampire blood next to a radiant Hermione at the Christmas ball. If he were that ghoulishly unattractive, why would Hermione have accepted his invitation or tolerated his constant companionship in the library?  Another good subject would have been a jealous Ron finding them in the stacks, but Kay prefers focusing on single figures.

The remaining three  volumes, like this one, mix up magical derring-do, teen angst, and strange creatures in fabulous settings, giving Kay a wealth of choice for subjects. It would be wonderful if he’d abandon the book decorations, which don’t add as much to the visual storytelling as would illustrations of Hogwarts interiors.  Or stretch himself and tackle a few more dramatic scenes where several characters interact.  Until The Order of the Phoenix later this year.