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. 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.
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.