When I was growing up, in an era before children watched television in their cribs, they used to publish a series called Classic Comics--literary masterpieces retold in comic book form. Although parents and teachers disapproved, it was common for children to read the comic rather than the book for their school reports. Today, of course, it’s easier to view the video.
Classic comics disappeared some time ago, but the desire to make great literature accessible to children still endures. Unfortunately, so do the problems of adaptation. How much, if any, should complex works be simplified to appeal to children? At what point does the “dumbing down” of books vitiate the experience of reading them?
Two new versions or adaptations of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer--the first by Selina Hastings, illustrated by Reg Cartwright (Henry Holt: $17.95; 75 pp.) and the second by Barbara Cohen; illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard: $17.95; 87 pp.)--strikingly illustrate these issues. Written in the late 14th Century, Chaucer’s 24 tales constitute probably the greatest narrative poem in our language. Chaucer’s Middle English is so foreign to us today, though, that most readers do not encounter him until college. Yet his stories of knights and chivalry and talking animals can be enjoyed and appreciated by children.
Selina Hastings’ version is a selection of seven retold Chaucer tales in prose; Barbara Cohen has retold four of them. In this case less is more, for Cohen has managed to preserve more of the wit, the irony, and the grace of the original. Compare Hastings’ way of opening “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” to Cohen’s: “There was once an old widow who lived in a tiny cottage on the edge of a meadow, just outside the village and near to a little wood.” (Hastings)
“Once, near a wood in a valley, a poor old widow lived in a narrow cottage. It’s about this widow that I’ll tell you a story.” (Cohen)
Hastings’ tales all sound as if they’ve been told by the same person; Cohen manages to capture the individual voice of each pilgrim-narrator and, consequently, retains more of Chaucer’s irony and ambiguity.
I liked Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations in Cohen’s book for the same reason. They are strong and evocative and filled with rich detail that keeps drawing you back to them. In several of the pictures, there is even a tiny Red Riding Hood figure who has somehow wandered onto the medieval landscape. Children should have fun searching for her in the pictures and wondering what she’s doing on the pilgrimage to Canterbury.
In retelling Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving, illustrated by John Howe (Little, Brown: $14.95; unpaginated), Howe was more interested in the illustrations than the words. The charm, the elegance, the ease and rhythm of Washington Irving’s language have all been sacrificed in an effort to reduce the story to its narrative essence and to provide a format for Howe to display his painterly skills. His detailed illustrations, particularly of the gnomes, capture some of the enchantment of Irving’s tale, but not enough to justify this rewriting.
On the other hand, in The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert W. Service; illustrated by Ted Harrison (David R. Godine: $14.95; unpaginated), Harrison presents the Service poem intact and adds his own visual interpretation. Harrison’s bold shapes and colors capture the intensity of Service’s Malamute saloon and the desperation of the miner who looked “like a man who had lived in hell.” The hallucinatory quality of Harrison’s drawings match Service’s feverish language: “Twas the crowning cry of a heart’s despair, and it thrilled you through and through"--The result is a haunting blend of words and pictures.
Two other books, one written 50 years ago, the other in 1895, prove that one does not have to sacrifice vocabulary or complexity to appeal to children. In fact, the charm and intelligence of these books will delight adult readers as well.
The Hedgehog was written by H. D., the great modernist poet; introduction by Perdita Schaffner; illustrated by George Plank (New Directions: $12.95; 96 pp.). It is a coming-of-age story about Madge, a fatherless Anglo-American girl, “a Father-which-art-in-Heaven child,” in one of H. D.'s lovely phrases. Madge, “a funny little independent individual” who lives in the French-speaking part of Switzerland with her mystical mother, sets out one day in search of a herisson to kill the snakes in the garden hedge. You don’t know what a herisson is? Neither does Madge when she begins, though that is far from the last of the trials and obstacles she encounters on her quest. A wry, whimsical parable about growing up, “The Hedgehog” is filled with the wonder of childhood, communicated in magical prose.
Howard Pyle’s The Garden Behind the Moon: A Real Story of the Moon Angel, illustrated by Pyle (Parabola: $14.95; 142 pp.), is a classic allegorical fairy tale by the author-illustrator of “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Story of King Arthur and his Knights.” Like “The Hedgehog,” it is a right-of-passage fable about a child passing into adulthood. Here a boy, ridiculed by his peers, is drawn by the mysterious Moon Angel into following the moon path to its source. On the moon, the boy discovers the difference between the “inside of things” and “the outside” and other truths about experience. After a series of adventures requiring bravery and wisdom, he returns to Earth having matured into manhood. Swiftly paced and compellingly written, the book manages to entertain and instruct without reducing the complexities or mysteries of life. It is why children will continue to read books like Pyle’s or H. D.'s even if they do not grasp every word or subtlety.