Introducing Classics to the Romper Room Set

We recently received a graphic novel version of Beowulf. We’re debating which section it should go in because, well, some of the panels are pretty… graphic. The first time I picked it up, and opened it, I turned to a page of someone (I assume Beowulf himself) emerging from a pool of blood. I wasn’t surprised though, because it’s Beowulf. It’s not a story about sunshine and lollipops.

Now, graphic novelizations of the classics are nothing new–we had them back when we called them comic books. Children’s sections are filled with retellings of the classics at a child’s reading comprehension level. Personally, I don’t think any version of Beowulf worth its salt would be age-appropriate fro the under 13 crowd.

But this brings up the larger question–should we be “dumbing down” the classics at all?

In most cases, it is not merely the plot that makes these works part of the cannon–what really makes books stand the test of time cannot be replicated in a retelling, especially one that’s aimed at children. If you want to know the plot of something because it’s part of the society’s collective consciousness, then read the summary on Wikipedia or get the Cliff’s Notes.

Now, I’m not talking about retellings that are adding to or re-imagining the story. Such as the way that Gail Carson Levine treats many fairy tales or a setting of Romeo and Juliet in a modern high school setting. I’m talking about deliberately simplifying a classic text that just gives people the feeling that they’ve “read” whatever…

What it gets down to is that there are very few classics that are appropriate for children. I can think of very few instances where it is not the content, but the language that makes something difficult for kids. In the vast majority of the Western Cannon at least, the language isn’t the main instance that makes these works inaccessible–it’s the content. Killing your father, marrying your mother, deciding to marry for love or money… these aren’t “kid” topics. Beowulf is a violent, bloody story. When you sanitize it down to a G or PG level, it ceases to be Beowulf.

Pretty much the only thing in the literary adaptations section that doesn’t make me cringe is Mary Pope Osborne’s Tales from the Odyssey. She is not dumbing down Homer, but is taking episodes from his epic poem and making them accessible. There are many episodes in The Odyssey that stand alone by themselves and are perfectly appropriate for those under 13, even if Homer’s poetry has a ridiculously high lexile level.

Now, I’m all about children reading “inappropriate” literature, but I don’t think we should necessarily be throwing them at them, or shelving it with “appropriate” literature.

And, if you’re old enough to handle the blood and gore of Beowulf, then maybe you’re old enough to take a crack at a translation of the original text, but no, I won’t make you read it in Old English.

-posted by kidsilkhaze

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7 Responses to Introducing Classics to the Romper Room Set

  1. Marian says:

    Who is the “we” that recieved this book? Which version, precisely, is it? Who wrote it? Was it written/illustrated by the same person? Is it one of the versions reviews in the NYT book section? http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/books/review/McGrath-t.html?ex=1183089600&en=009ada5dfc953ec0&ei=5070

  2. Dana says:

    Marian, the “we” kidsilkhaze is referring to is the public library she works for. I’ll have to let her answer the rest of your questions, though, sorry.

  3. kidsilkhaze says:

    “We” is the children’s section of the public library I work for, which I don’t name by name because even though someone who really wanted to could probably figure it out, I try not to associate my book blogging with my place of employment and I try not to talk about work in such public places because there’s some gray areas there…

    Anyway, the version of Beowulf I was looking at is the Hinds version. The Times review says it’s for ages “10 and up” which makes it hard to decide between the children’s section and the YA section. Will it appeal more for the 10-13? Or the 13+ crowd?

    But you know what I want to see? A graphic novel classic that leaves the text alone. I love good graphic novels and I think that artists can add a lot to these works, but when the mess with the text, they’ve taken away any value they may have added, if not more.

  4. TheGnat says:

    I personally encourage those kinds of graphic novels. Many people are daunted by the classics: the language is unfamiliar and there’s the great weight of “literature” behind them. They might never get exposed to the great stories without a “dumbed down” version. And in many cases, what truly is important is the story, however wonderful and valuable the writing itself is.
    My brother is dyslexic, and he hates reading, but he loved Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, which he knew about by reading the comic versions of the books in his “Boy’s Life” Scouting magazine. I read the children’s versions of most of the classics, which inspired me to read the real things later. Comics made from the original stories encourage reading, fostering a sense that “literature” can be fun and accessible.

    Also. you might like http://vanhelsing.tk/ which is a webcomic using the original text of Dracula (except ocassional changes to make dialog based on the original narration), and illustrating it as an anthropomorphic comic. šŸ™‚

    I would put Beowulf in the YA section. It’s way too violent for 10-13, if you ask me.

  5. This isn’t quite the same, but I was horrified a few years ago by an abridged version of my beloved Anne of Green Gables. I actually discarded it from my collection. When you have to dumb down an actual children’s classic, things have gotten waaaay too dumb.

  6. kidsilkhaze says:

    Now, I’m all about using graphic novels to foster literacy. I do it all the time, when I can get the parents to change their thinking about things.

    TheGnat makes some good points I hadn’t thought of. Can we use the graphic novel or kiddie version to turn people onto the original? Too often I hear “I don’t need to read that, I read the comic book.” And that’s what irks.

    Also, I feel that comic book versions of the classics work against getting graphic novels accepted as viable literature. But, the graphic novel version of the 9/11 report did get a lot of good buzz amongst the book set…

    Hmmm… not entire sure what I’m saying…

  7. TheGnat says:

    Well, for the people who feel they don’t need to read it, you can either try to convince them otherwise, or declare it their loss. Or in some cases, point out that some juicy details were left out.

    As far as getting graphic novels accepted as viable literature: these things take time. Charles Dickens was just a popular writer. Many of his contemporaries certainly don’t get read anymore. Ukiyo-e were the porno mags of Edo Japan, now they’re high art! I think the fact that we’re calling them by a fancy name is a good start. Other than that, leave it to excellent authors like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett making comic versions of their stories or writing comics to work away at culture’s stubborness. ^^

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