Shrinking Jane Austen: Board and Picture Books

“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.


Collecting Harry Potter: A Wizarding World of Merchandise

J. K. Rowling is the only major fantasy English-language fantasy writer to have completely saturated the market with merchandise described in her books: her imagination is naturally  commodifying. Diana Wynne Jones wrote more books revolving around magical powers, but the plots and characters are not contained in one world. There are seven volumes by Ursula K. Le Guin about the great archipelago of Earthsea, where wizards and ordinary people live frugally without the assistance of technology or pleasures of many creature comforts.  Things are central to the imaginative realm of Rowling in a way they never were in those of Wynne Jones and Le Guin.  Say “Harry Potter” and chances are a product she dreamed up as likely to pop into your head; there is no comparable reaction when hearing “Chrestomanci” or “Sparrowhawk.”

Only those immersed in the Harry Potter series as youngsters will put on their bucket list a visit to Platform 9 ¾, the flagship of official licensed Harry Potter shops in King’s Cross Station.  Somewhere among the wizarding world collectibles for Muggles may be found for that petite madeleine—or rather Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans—that will keep the memories ever green of reading the books, listening to the audio-recordings, and watching the films.  A jar of Bobotuber pus cannot be had there for love or money, but there is more than enough swag to cram full an expandable bag.   A set of Horcruxes?  An LGBT pride tee shirt?    A Divination tea set?  A Gringotts bank?  A Final Challenge chess set?  What will you have?It’s even possible to imagine Rowling’s characters visiting Platform 9 ¾ as a  shadowy simulacrum of Diagon Alley.  Draco would stalk down the aisles looking for merch from the dark side— the Death Eaters’ masks or the movie prop replica of his wand authenticated by Warner Brothers in an Ollivander’s box plus a Slytherin wand stand—that might stir his pure blood and uncurl his lip very slightly.

Ron would deny the existence of knock-offs of his mother’s infamous Christmas sweaters.  Being chronically short of pocket money, he would have to be contented with picking up some cheap Quidditch memorabilia or trying to complete his set of chocolate frog wizard cards.There isn’t anything quirky enough in the shop to catch Luna’s eye. If witches used mobile phones, she could search Etsy for unique items like customized cake decorations, a polymer clay statue of Dobby and the sock that liberated him, or a full-scale model of Harry’s cupboard while waiting for her friends to finish browsing. The attempts to copy her personal style, on the other hand, she might not take as a compliment, even if the prices were reasonable.What about Hermione?  It’s hard to imagine her wearing a charm bracelet with miniatures of the winged key or the Tri-wizard Tournament cup. But the best witch of her generation can’t resist a good reference book, so she might just not be able to resist a copy of the Unofficial Harry Potter Character Compendium compiled by Mugglenet bound in “premium leather accented in true 22K gold” from Easton Press for $147.00 (payment in  three convenient installments is also an option). And her preference for books is, surprisingly enough, the soundest in terms of investment value.  The books that started the tsunami of authorized merchandise, have held their value relative to the tchotchkes: thousands of dollars separate the priciest lots of merch on EBay from the seven titles in the series.   Buying a first edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on Ebay would be foolhardy, given the very brief descriptions posted there, but armed with Phillip W. Errington’s  updated edition of  J. K. Rowling:  A Bibliography (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), I can examine any copy at hand and be confident of identifying one of the several million copies of the first printing of the American edition.   In fact, there’s one in my basement, but it’s been handled too much to realize full market value.  Pity.

Errington succeeds in bestowing upon Rowling’s body of writing literary legitimacy, but fails to give any indication of the existence of the parallel collecting universe she has authorized to extend the wizarding world’s reach far beyond the printed page.   Legions of devout fans haunt Ebay for Harry Potter memorabilia because it’s affordable.  It can be bought in lots sold by weight or acquired painstakingly item by item.  For a  Hagrid completist, it would be necessary to track down all forms of Fang, Fluffy, Norbert, Buckbeak, Blast-ended skrewts, Aragog, etc.  Having gone that far down the path to the Forbidden Forest, the passionate collector would then be obligated to add all the different versions  of his hut (that’s a lot of Legos) and the peculiar objects inspired by the birthday cake he baked for Harry….  All this activity raises the dementors of storage versus display–and either option eats up space and tests the forbearance of loved ones.  It has even wider ramifications.  Best-selling books may be the heart and soul of any campaign to exploit their commercial potential as a beloved cultural property, but overlooking all the merch (however sane a decision it may be on the bibliographer’s part) fails to come to terms with the cataclysmic changes marketing and branding have wrought in the literary landscape of late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.  To understand the impact of Rowling’s imagination, it is important to take into account her fans’ powerful desire to acquire solid, displayable, wearable tokens of the wizarding world.

Read the two articles below for different takes on collecting Harry Potter: