Introducing adult classics to children

The creators of KinderGuides, graphic designer Melissa Medina and writer Fredrik Colting, at their home office in Los Angeles.
The creators of KinderGuides, graphic designer Melissa Medina and writer Fredrik Colting, at their home office in Los Angeles.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Alice Hemmer's favourite part of Jack Kerouac's novel On The Road does not involve the drug-addled road trips, encounters with prostitutes in Mexico or wild parties in Manhattan. The five- year-old likes the part when Sal Paradise eats ice cream and apple pie whenever he feels hungry.

She has not actually read Kerouac's 320-page, amphetamine-fuelled, stream-of-consciousness classic.

Instead, her father reads her a heavily abridged and sanitised illustrated version of the book designed for six- to 12-year-old children.

"She didn't love it," said her father Kurt Hemmer, an English professor at Harper College and scholar of the Beat Generation. He noted that even some college students failed to appreciate the novel's subtle spiritual message. "To really grasp it, you need to be a bit more mature."

On The Road, with its recurring references to sex, drugs and domestic violence, might not seem like an ideal bedtime story for a child. But that is the point of KinderGuides, a new series of books that aims to make challenging adult literary classics accessible to young readers.

KinderGuides also recently published picture-book versions of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea and Truman Capote's melancholy novella Breakfast At Tiffany's. It also released a cheerful take on Arthur C. Clarke's opaque, mind-bending science-fiction novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

With their bright illustrations and breezy language - "Sal is ready for an adventure!" pretty much typifies the tone of On The Road - the books almost seem like parodies, or the perfect gag gift for the hipster parent who has everything.

And the creators of the series, graphic designer Melissa Medina and her husband, writer Fredrik Colting, are already working on the next four titles in the series - versions of Paulo Coelho's best-selling novel The Alchemist, Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye and Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird .

"The goal of all of this is to get them really psyched about these books now, so that they'll want to read the originals later," Medina said.

Though the premise of their project may strike some as absurd, kiddie lit has become a surprisingly lucrative and crowded niche.

Anxious parents who played Mozart for their babies in utero and showed them Baby Einstein educational videos have snapped up children's books that promise to turn their offspring into tiny literature lovers.

BabyLit, which publishes board books for babies based on Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Don Quixote and other classics, has sold more than 1.5 million copies of its 24 titles. Next autumn, it will introduce a series of picture books based on classic novels geared towards older children, starting with Moby Dick and Pride And Prejudice.

Some educators are sceptical of efforts to spoonfeed complex literary works to small children, especially when there is such a rich body of classic children's literature.

"It's ludicrous to take great works that are clearly for adults and reduce them for children," said Ms Monica Edinger, a fourth-grade teacher at the Dalton School in Manhattan, who dismissed KinderGuides as a disingenuous attempt to exploit parents' insecurities.

Still, some parents counter that children can absorb the bigger themes, such as the idea of resilience in The Old Man And The Sea or adventurousness in On The Road.

There are copyright issues, some say.

"If you are literally taking a book and trying to translate it for children, taking what makes it literature and copying that, that sounds like infringement," said Professor Rebecca Tushnet of the Georgetown University Law Center.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline 'Introducing adult classics to children'. Print Edition | Subscribe