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Fear and Loathing in the Playground: Welcome to classic literature for toddlers

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
“Atticus, he was real nice.”
By Amy X. Wang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Children’s literature these days is taking a turn for the avant-garde. Earlier this year, there was the children’s book about Donald Trump; now works of adult classic literature are being adapted for babies and toddlers.

A publishing company called Moppet Books has set up a line of new illustrated kids’ books—called KinderGuides—that proffer a “condensed, simplified version of the plot” for classics such as Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Co-founder Fredrik Colting explained that the books are not a gimmick: they’re “about sowing the seed of appreciation for classic literature at an early age.”

(Courtesy of KinderGuides/Moppet Books)

A similar venture, BabyLit—run by publishing house Gibbs Smith—exists for an even younger set. The series adapts works such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina into board books, color-splashed and jubilant, for actual babies. On its website, The Odyssey is $9.99 with a Pixar-inspired cover. The description begins, “Monsters don’t have to be scary.”

(Courtesy of BabyLit/Gibbs Smith Inc)

Such a spin might seem to defeat the very purpose of Homer’s epic—and some parents question the point of having kids read classics in the first place, when they could just as well read books originally designed for their age group.

Notable in these classics-for-children series is the absence of adult themes, too. KinderGuides’ adaption of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for instance, skips over the insinuation that Holly Golightly is a prostitute, and its upcoming twist on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird omits rape charges, Ku Klux Klan rallies, and racial slurs.

For publishers, however, authenticity isn’t truly the concern. There’s something else in the mix: money.

Notes the New York Times in an article this week (paywall), “Though the premise of their project may strike some as absurd —does a first grader really need to be introduced to Kerouac or Capote?—kiddie lit has become a surprisingly lucrative and crowded niche.” Children’s books are booming internationally, defying overall stumbles in the publishing industry. BabyLit’s 24 titles have sold 1.5 million copies.

“Classics are ageless, and so are their readers,” KinderGuides’ website insists. Well, one of those is true.

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