Deborah Yaffe

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CliffsNotes for kiddies

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 1 2019 01:00PM

I am all in favor of introducing young people to great literature, even great literature they are probably too young to fully appreciate. Heck, I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was ten. I doubt I got it all. (For that matter, I still doubt I’ve gotten it all. There’s a lot to get.)


I’m also in favor of little jokes about great literature, like the Pride and Prejudice board book for babies, a counting book that runs from “1. . .English village” to “10. . . 10,000 pounds a year.” We don’t buy this book to get our favorite toddlers started on Jane Austen. We buy it to give our favorite Janeite parents-of-toddlers a giggle at read-aloud time.


But when it comes to a book like the KinderGuides Early Learning Guide to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – published in 2017 but only just now reaching my consciousness – I’m at a loss.


The illustrated forty-five-page book aims to introduce P&P to children ages four to eight, via a short bio of Jane Austen and a simplified plot summary. About a third of the pages are available for online viewing, and . . . well, I will try not to carp.


OK: no, I won’t.


I will just point out four little (except not that little) things:


1. Pace the illustrator, Elizabeth Bennet’s eyes are not blue. They are “dark.” Also “fine.”


2. Although it may be comforting to tell twenty-first-century children that “luckily, Jane was able to make enough money from writing books to take care of herself,” this is simply false. Jane Austen, one of the greatest novelists ever to write in English, never made enough from her writing to support herself. This sucks. But it’s the truth.


3. “How much money you have is a big deal to most people in this book. Although we see that it’s not so important in the end.” Umm. . . we do? I don’t know which edition the KinderFolk have been reading, but it’s crystal clear by the end of the book that money matters plenty. That’s why Elizabeth and Jane are lucky to marry rich men, and Lydia is unfortunate to be stuck with an impecunious one.


4. “Having too much pride makes you think you are better than other people. Darcy and Elizabeth both learn that being humble is always better.” Sigh. Where to begin? Well, let’s just say that this tidy schoolroom lesson (“Don’t be stuck-up!”) vastly undersells the complexity of Austen’s attitude toward pride, humility, and self-esteem.


My point is not (or not only) that inaccuracy, oversimplification, and sentimental moralizing seem to bedevil this project. I suppose all that is an occupational hazard when you’re attempting to summarize a profound and complicated grownup book in language suitable for young children. (Although that still doesn’t excuse the eye-color thing.)


On a deeper level, though, I just don’t see the point of this whole effort to introduce P&P to grade-schoolers. The world is filled with wonderful books aimed squarely at children ages four to eight – no explanatory guides necessary. Luckily, the world also contains six wonderful novels by Jane Austen, all of which are eminently accessible to children just a few years older, if they want to accept the challenge posed by her nineteenth-century vocabulary and sentence structure. And if they aren’t ready for that challenge yet – that’s fine! There’s time! They can read something else for now!


Meanwhile, though, why teach children that classic works of literature must be approached by way of dumbed-down plot summaries denuded of everything that makes their authors spiky, unique, complicated, unsettling? Books aren’t wild animals we must edge up to sideways. We can take them on directly – and we should.


KinderGuides likes to claim that its books are training future readers, but if you ask me, they’re training future CliffsNotes consumers. And we’ve got enough of those already.


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