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.

 

The Staying Power of Beverly Cleary (1916-2021)

Early in her career Beverly Cleary said she wanted to write about “universal human emotions,” but the idea that there are emotions all readers can relate to, regardless of race, gender, and class, seems hopelessly optimistic, perhaps even dangerously dated now.  Her Klickitat novels from the 1950s and mid-1960s reflect another America, but have shifting values invalidated her attempt to find common ground through the depiction of ordinary anxieties children experience daily at home and school? Things like, will something interesting happen to me?   Or how am  I going to hide something embarrassing from my peers?   These two concerns play out humorously in Cleary’s stories time after time without lapsing into cruelty or condescension.

The pest Ramona Geraldine Quimby may be Cleary’s most famous character and, judging by some of the recent posts, the one many women like best.   I still find Ellen Tebbits easier to relate to than Ramona, decades after making their acquaintances.   Ramona courts attention because the littlest and youngest person won’t be noticed unless willing to make great big noisy fusses.  Which, of course, she is.  Ellen also wants attention, but is much more self-conscious when trying to get it   Imagine Ellen, with a grimy face, balanced on top of a jungle gym howling and holding a lunch box which conceals the bone she stole from Ribsy as punishment for taking her ice cream cone…   Ramona is not malicious, but it is perfectly in character that she pulls her classmate Susan’s curls repeatedly without feeling anything like the remorse Ellen does when she yanks Austine’s sash and tears it right out of the dress’s side seam.  Compared to Ramona, the early 1950s four-year-old icon for girl power, eight-year-old Ellen hangs back, being more sensitive to other people’s feelings and more concerned about what they might think of her.  She will surely outgrow some of her timidity and tentativeness, but she will probably never be in Ramona’s league for brass.  Who can say what either of them will be like when they are grown up?

Anyone who had a Ramona-like sibling shouldn’t have any trouble believing her antics like taking one bite out of every apple in the bushel–or pushing down envy for having the imagination plus the nerve to have done it themselves. The upsets Ellen faces are more ordinary and easier to find parallels to similar experiences, regardless of personality type and social class, at least to some extent.  While it surely helps to have set foot in a ballet studio, Cleary helps the reader imagine Ellen’s torment trying to dance, while keeping the winter underwear from unrolling past her waist.  Leap and clutch.  Leap and clutch.  Leap and clutch.  Finding something for show and tell puts pressure on children to think of something so interesting that they will shine, please the teacher, and engage their classmates. Ellen arrives at school in a dress stained with mud and beet juice carrying a huge vegetable for show and tell, but her moment of triumph dissipates as soon as she begins to worry that she’ll be sent home to change and lose the opportunity to talk about the beet.  Unspoken is her fear of facing her  mother in the ruined dress.  There is probably not a reader who can’t hear his or her mother scolding them for not taking care of their things.

Klickitat Street was not home to a vibrant, diverse neighborhood that is the ideal now.  But in the 1950s and 1960s, it could be regarded within limits as different, depending upon what part of the country readers were growing up.   The arid Southwest was nothing like Oregon in the Pacific Northwest.  A place so wet and rainy that would require someone to wear long woolen underwear was kind of exotic if you had seen a such a garment in stores or dresser drawers.  Due to the rising demand for single-family homes in metropolitan Los Angeles, kids were more likely to scrounge for interesting stuff on construction sites than overgrown vacant lots.  To a boy who was driven in the family car down the San Diego freeway, the struggles of Henry Huggins bringing the stray dog Ribsy home on a bus with a rain storm threatening may have sounded pretty adventurous.  Kids weren’t  allowed to go places by themselves on a city bus–if there were any lines they could have taken.

The “adventures” of the white middle-class characters on Klickitat Street might not compare with those of the Pevensey children, but Cleary demonstrated that they had interesting lives even if they didn’t travel to parallel magical worlds.   Beloved by readers, her work has not generated a body of literary criticism as extensive as those of many fantasy writers, even though she was the recipient of the 1975 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award), the 1984 Newbery Medal, and the 2002 National Medal of Art.  Perhaps if Cleary had written about a different cross-section of the American population or questioned contemporary gender roles, her standing within the canon of children’s literature might be higher.  Ultimately what she produced, not what she might have or should have done, ought to be judged within the context of the society she wrote about.  Perhaps we should think of Cleary as an heir of  Maria Edgeworth, who tried to show through the series of stories about her alter-ego Rosamund, how a child’s mind, feelings, and values were formed through interactions with family and friends.  Surely it is no small thing to try show with sympathy and humor  the breakthroughs and setbacks in the socialization process of a particular time and place.