Introducing Classic Literature To Your Kids

We look back on cherished books through a nostalgic lens. It’s this lens that I blame for my irrational reaction to the new cover of Anne of Green Gables released by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. It’s been done many times and I haven’t so much as batted an eyelash. To most of us, Anne of Green Gables looks like this.

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She is our adorably freckled, precocious, Gilbert Blythe-loving companion of yesteryear, and we’re going to keep it that way!

So when we laid eyes on this new design of our beloved book, we grabbed the pitchforks and fired up the torches. Apparently, Anne has had some work done.

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I could leave the plaid shirt and blonde hair alone. I can forget about the blatant disregard of realistic 1900’s fashion, but that come hither look makes me want to smash a slate over someone’s head (as Anne did to Gilbert when he called her ‘freckles’.)

Modernizing is one thing. Tarting up poor Anne is quite another. Either a poorly formed focus group determined that the appropriate audience for this book was 16 year old boys, or the idea that “sexy” sells has officially gotten its grimy hands all over children’s lit.  Gross. Okay, rant over.

This is what it takes to get kids reading? Must we dress up Tom Sawyer to look like a mini pimp? Is Ralph S. Mouse going to have to start hitting the gym to get noticed? I think we can probably get kids interested in some of the classics we enjoyed without a makeover.

I used to enjoy spending my free time curled up with Heidi or Huck Finn. Kids still enjoy adventure and fun, and they can definitely relate to desiring freedom in a world ruled by adults. It’s why in books the parents “disappear”. It’s a way to go from a place of powerlessness to a place of freedom and agency.  (We’re orphans woot! Oh wait, who will do my laundry?)

When children are young, it’s a little easier to slip The Ugly Duckling in between, This Is Not My Hat and Olivia. It gets more difficult when they start reading by themselves. For older kids, we just have to frame these stories the right way.

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Suggestion #1

First let’s do a little digging. One thing Amazon is really good at is saying, “Hey!  If you liked this one thing you might enjoy this other thing that is ever so slightly tangentially related!” Look at what kids are reading and find similar things. For instance, when my mom caught me watching the movie Clueless for the fortieth time she put Jane Austen’s Emma into my hands and told me Clueless was an adaptation of this book. I have loved Austen ever since.

If you run an Internet search for books similar to Harry Potter, you find that J.K Rowling was influenced by E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers. Use authors like maps. What did they read? Who influenced them? Teach your kids to do the same.

Suggestion #2

Tell them the truth! This means a lot of things. It means did you know Dr. Seuss also wrote under the names Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone?

It means here is the book of Grimm’s Fairytales. Don’t be too scared when Cinderella’s stepsister cuts off her heel to make the glass slipper fit. It means did you know there was a real Alice? Kids can handle a lot more than you think. I’ll let brilliant writer Kelly Barnhill say this for me. After reading an article claiming children’s books were too dark, Barnhill responded:

“These kids are darker and creepier and far more sinister than anything that you will find on display of a Barnes & Noble or on any possibly-pinko-commie librarian’s do-gooder shelves. In their imaginations, villains lurk under the stairs, assassins hide behind shower curtains, and tentacled monsters slurp along the basement floor.” 

So go ahead, let them read Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard (it’s like the Jungle Book but in a graveyard. An unwanted boy raised by ghosts.)  Read the banned books. Tell your kids why they were banned. As we well know, the stuff we’re not supposed to have is always worth having.

Suggestion #3

Read to them even if they can read to themselves. Do story night for as long as they’ll let you. After that, give them audio books for road trips. The classics sometimes become, as Mark Twain said, “a book which people praise, but don’t read”. The language and cultural references are outdated. It can be daunting to put down the “lols” and “ttyls” to read the preface ofThe Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne.

If you can explain and frame the context of the book for them, kids are more likely to go with you into an unfamiliar world. That may be why books like Anne of Green Gables have needed a little push to be interesting while The Lord of the Rings is doing just fine without sexy hobbits. If a book is fantastical it’s okay if the language is a little quirky or if the characters live somewhere different from where you live. They’re supposed to.

Suggestion #4

Keep in mind that the cannon of classics is a shifting one. Sure it began with Pollyanna and Peter Pan. Who among us hasn’t enjoyed Peter Pan and his escapades with a group of maladjusted tweens and their herpetophobic amputee friend Captain Hook? But now, in addition to these we have Judy Blume books, James and the Giant Peach, Ramona, and lots of others that are now considered classic reads for kids.

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Suggestion #5 

Some classics to get you started.

The House With a Clock in its Walls By John Bellairs

This is kiddie gothic horror. Lewis always dreamed of living in an old house full of secret passageways, hidden rooms, and big marble fireplaces. When he gets his wish after the death of his parents, Lewis discovers his new caretaker uncle is also a wizard. Lewis doesn’t bank on the fact that the old owner of the mansion was not only another wizard, but an evil one who has placed a tick-tocking clock somewhere in the bowels of the house, ticking down to the end of the world.

Anything Edward Gorey

Gorey wrote and illustrated so many books from 1953 to 1999. The Sinking Spell and The Unstrung Harp are two of his other works worth checking out.

Ender’s Game By Orson Scott Card

This one isn’t as obscure as some of the others but I don’t think it’s one we often put into the hands of children. Please refer back to suggestion #3.

Just So Stories By Rudyard Kipling

Highly fantasized origin stories by the author of The Jungle Book.

The Marvelous Land of Snergs By E.A. Wyke-Smith

J.R.R. Tolkien lists this book as an inspiration for The Hobbit.

Actually, there’s a whole book called Tales Before Tolkien by Douglas A. Anderson about the birth of modern fantasy and this one is included.

On Beyond Zebra By Dr. Seuss

After One fish, Two Fish read this one where the young narrator invents additional letters beyond Z, with a fantastic creature corresponding to each new letter.

Caddie Woodlawn By Carol Ryrie Brink

The cooler, gutsier tomboy version of Anne of Green Gables.

The Reluctant Dragon By Kenneth Grahame

This short story is the first time a dragon is the good guy. Consider this a primer for Puff the Magic Dragon and Toothless.

The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry

A Newbery Honor winner. It’s the Icarus tale, if Icarus was an independent, perennially cool, take no prisoners kind of girl.  Let me know if you find a copy of this one though.  Libraries may still have a 1934 edition.

Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls By Nathaniel Hawthorne

A re-writing of well-known Greek myths for children.

Baby Lit Books By Jennifer Adams

There’s Little Miss Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Little Master Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Little Miss Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Little Master Melville’s Moby Dick and more.  Hey, it can’t hurt to start ‘em early.

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