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.

 

Banned Books: Dav Pilkey’s Adventures of Ook and Gluk, a Post-Mortem

Dav Pilkey signing books for fans.

Dyslexic and disruptive as a boy, Dav Pilkey has great sympathy for children who find learning to read overwhelming.  He prefers a visual format like the graphic novel because the disaffected and discouraged are more likely to be engaged.  Allowing children to read what they want with minimal adult interference strikes him as better in the long run than not reading at all. If that means the classics are not starting point, so be it.  Giving those kids wild stories flush with potty humor and phonetically spelled dialogue supposedly written by bad boys George Beard, who is Black and his white best friend Harold Hutchins, has made Pilkey a best-selling author.

Pilkey drawing his most famous character, Captain Underpants

How he tells the stories he invents is as controversial in some circles as they are beloved in others.  His most famous series of graphic novels, Captain Underpants, has made the American Library Association’s banned book list several times.  But none of Pilkey’s forty-odd books have been withdrawn until this spring when The Adventures of Ook and Gluk Kung-fu Cavemen of the Future was challenged. Many of the accounts in the media presented similar versions of the story without raising questions or adding new information, even though the issues were more complicated than they reported.  Links to most of my sources are inserted in the text.

This spring Billy Kim’s two children, both huge Pilkey fans, brought home from the public library The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, which was originally published by Scholastic in 2010. The story tells how best friends Ook and Gluk stop a predatory twenty-first-century corporation from stripping  the prehistoric world of its natural resources, thanks to learning kung-fu from Master Wong in 2222 A. D.   As a Korean-American, Kim was offended by the portrayal of Asians in the book and when his attempts to air those objections with Scholastic seemed to be going nowhere, on March 22, 2021 he wrote a Change.org petition, “Scholastic Needs to Apologize for Publishing a  Children’s Book Full of Racist Imagery,” signed with his initials.  The problems were the portrayal of  Asian characters with dashes for eyes and the proverb-spouting Master Wong character.  Kim’s description of Wong is correct but doesn’t take mention that  Master Wong  saves the friends from capture by Goppernopper operatives or that he is the only one who can explain why the world will be saved when J. P. Goppernopper obliterates his ancient ancestor Chief Goppernopper.

Kim called on the author and publisher to take the following steps.  1. Make public apologies taking full responsibility for failing to address the racist content.  2. Scholastic should alert librarians and educators about the book’s problems so informed decisions can be made about its future circulation.  3. Donations should be made to organizations whose missions are to combat racism and promote diversity.  Taking all three steps would not, in his opinion, reserve the harm already caused by Ook and Gluk:  “Every child who has read this book has been conditioned to accept this racist image as okay or funny.  It is this type of passive racism that has contributed to the continued hate and prejudice experienced by Asian Americans on a daily basis.”  It is surely no coincidence that Kim took action in the wake of  March 16th’, when a twenty-one-year-old white man killed eight people, six of them Asian-Americans, in three Atlanta-area spas.

He reached out again to the publisher on late on March 22 and when he did not receive an immediate response, assumed he was being ignored.  Dav Pilkey and Scholastic agreed immediately after learning about the petition to halt the book’s distribution, according to Pilkey’s wife and business partner Sayuri. An  undated notice on Scholastic’s News Room page announced that as of March 22 domestic and international orders for Ook and Gluk would no longer be fulfilled, the existing inventory recalled, and references deleted from the website.

Pilkey quickly invited Kim to a Facetime meeting on the 25th  Immediately after their conversation, he wrote and posted an apology on his You Tube channel.  He explained that his intention had been to “showcase diversity, equality and nonviolent conflict” (Ook is white, Gluk Black). He now realized the plot depended upon “harmful racial stereotypes and passively racist imagery.”  Pledging to do better, he announced that he and his wife would donate the equivalent of the advance, the previous ten years’ worth of royalties, and future royalties to organizations that “provide free books, art supplies, and theater for children in underserved communities; organizations that promote diversity in children’s books and publishing; and organizations designed to stop violence and hatred against Asians.”

After his meetings with the publisher and author, Kim updated the petition with information about outcome. By waiting to do this, Kim allowed the impression to stand that Pilkey was uncooperative, which Sayuri Pilkey states was untrue and unfair.  She defended her husband as acting out of the desire to make the incident a teaching moment and having a long-standing commitment to supporting groups serving minority children.  She also pointed out that he demurred from mentioning the involvement of Asian editors on the project,  receiving positive feedback from her and Elaine Oh, director of “We Need Diverse Books,”, or that Kim’s was the first complaint in eleven years.

The major points in contention addressed by March 29th,  due partly to Pilkey’s acceptance of constructive criticism and Scholastic’s quick actions, a potential public relations disaster was averted with greater sensitivity than had objections swirling around  Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington (2016), Emily Jenkin’s A Fine Dessert (2015), and Arthur C. Gackley’s (aka Robert Staake), Bad Little Children’s Books (2016).  An undated statement, “We Stand in Solidarity with the AAPI Community,” was inserted at the head of the Scholastic splash page.  The Ook and Gluk Wikipedia page was updated by someone with the information about Scholastic halting distribution, but by then the news cycle had already moved on.

Some traces of the cavemen have yet to be sent back through the time portal.   Scholastic has taken down the Ook and Gluk page and related curriculum but as of today visitors can find out about the story on the Kids Book Clubs  or download a maze puzzle with Master Wong.   Want to learn how to talk like caveman?  Download the primer of Cavemonics and annoy every grown-up in ear shot.   Pilkey’s official site still features an Ook and Gluk “Adventures Never End when You Read” coloring sheet in the “Fun Stuff” section.  By far the web source with the most material is the Captain Underpants “The Epic Tales Encyclopedia” Wiki, operated by Fandom.com.  “Characters” can be searched for “Ook” or “Gluk”  Articles come up, with all the links live, which is the only way to access information about Master Wong, Chief and J. P. Goppernopper, who do not have their own articles.   As of today the wiki makes no reference to the recent incident.The media missed one important angle worth considering.  The Adventures of Ook and Gluk was on the best-sellers’ list for 33 weeks, Kim’s petition stated, which was probably intended to show that the book reached a wide audience and had considerable potential to shape attitudes and values.  The uncontextualized statistic is somewhat misleading without the back story.  In 2010 Ook and Gluk was slated as the second spin-off mini-series from Captain Underpants, The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby preceding it in 2002.  It was supposed to be the first of a four-volume deal.  The print run was set at a million copies.  Its first week, Ook and Gluk was second on the New York Times hardcover graphic novel best-sellers list and  first place for the next six.   For the remaining 26 weeks it made the list, it was presumably not in the top two slots.  While the sequel, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk Jr. Cave-Kids in Outer Space, was announced on page 170 of the first book, it seems to have languished in “development hell” for years until quietly cancelled, without notifying the fan base.  It sounds as if Ook and Gluk had not performed well enough to go forward, being the only Pilkey concept for a series–Captain Underpants, Dog Man, Dragon Tales, Dumb Bunnies, Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot, and Super Diaper Baby—that did not go into multiple titles.  From this perspective, it was a bit of good luck that Ook and Gluk was challenged: if Scholastic had to sacrifice any title to protect the Pilkey brand, this was the one.

And the public?  Not that many expressed support for or outrage against the author, if these two unscientifically selected samples are at all typical.  Of the 289 people signing Kim’s petition, eleven left comments, all but two with Asian last names.  “Boo” razzed Meng Cheng. “It’s self-explanatory,” said Alan Lee.   Abbie Rindfuss commented, “I teach 2nd graders and the more educated I become on these issues the more we can ensure these kids grow up Anti racist, more compassionate and empathic adults. I stand against Asian hate and all groups that have been marginalized.”  The contributors to the thread  on Technodrome Forums, a discussion group for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans, had different takes.   Goldmutant was not a huge Pilkey fan: “A lot of books are off-the-walls, satirical, and low-brow. It’s his style.”  IndigoErth mused, “I wish the info was clear what the actual misstep is in the book. Esp if it was a guy of Korean heritage, not Chinese, that found issue with it. Maybe there are stereotypes they didn’t want to repeat in the article (?), but not saying directly what the issue is just lets people go into a rage over another book being “canceled” and not knowing what the real issue is. Because only mentioning that the characters meet a martial arts instructor who teaches them kung fu and about Chinese Philosophy doesn’t sound like the actual problem.”  Jester thought Kim sounded like “a male Karen” and seem to have doubts whether a petition signed by than 300 signatories should have had the power to suppress a book.

Why, who, and how many are enough sway the publisher of an author who is no stranger to controversy to take a title off the market?   That’s a problem that deserves far more careful consideration as the trend to challenge children’s books develops in the future.

Pilkey with his fans.