Oh, Baby(Lit)

Carolyn Foster Segal assesses the new "trend" of board books for infants based on literary classics.

November 21, 2013

In our house, we started off gently, with Goodnight Moon.

Clearly, however, we got it all wrong, according to a recent front-page article in The New York Times. If only we’d taken a cardboard page from Gibbs Smith, publisher of the BabyLit series, or from Simply Read Books’ “Cozy Classics” line of board books, we would have replaced Baby Animal Friends with White Fang, and we certainly wouldn’t have waited until our children were six to require that they read Crime and Punishment.

It seems that for the “0+ to 3” crowd, The Cat in the Hat is old hat. Max and his sister Ruby are out; Ahab and his white whale are in. I puzzled over that plus sign after the zero until I realized that it is probably wise to give your newborn infant a few days to settle in before introducing him/her to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or Sherlock Holmes’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Speaking of mysteries, I’m not quite convinced of the value of introducing a 6-month-old to Moby-Dick or Les Miserables, two items on the Cozy Classics list. (BabyLit offers a competing version of Moby-Dick, subtitled An Ocean Primer). Such an endeavor must clearly involve a great deal of judicious revision. Does Ahab’s line “We become the thing we hate” now read “We become the thing we teethe on”? And while a first pass at abridging was probably a no-brainer (just cut all those pesky chapters on cetology), how did the editors handle the epilogue, in which Ishmael, floating in a casket, invokes Job: “And I only escaped alone to tell thee.”

Yikes. Isn’t this verily the stuff of nightmares?

It certainly isn’t going to be much help in terms of dealing with a screaming 2-year-old at 3:00 a.m., unless his/her parents have decided that it’s time for a little lesson in St. John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul.” Nor does another title on the Cozy Classics List, War and Peace, seem especially warm and fuzzy, although the illustrations “are needle-felted.” This particular selection features “twelve child-friendly words,” presumably excluding “war.”

The BabyLit list features Wuthering Heights:A BabyLit Weather Primer (useful, I suppose, if your 8-month-old has shown an interest in moors, climatology or dating ghosts) and Sense and Sensibility: A BabyLit Opposites Primer (although it may still be best to start with “near” and “far”). Really, when an infant cries, he/she is saying “Feed me” or “Change me,” not “Tell me again why Heathcliff is such a tortured soul.”

While sales of the BabyLit series are apparently around 300,000, I’m not quite sold on this new genre. Perhaps we need to order a long-term study on the effects of postmodern baby lit on SAT scores.

The Times reporter Julie Bosnan did helpfully address the subject of the rationale: according to Bosnan, Suzanne Gibbs Taylor, the associate publisher and creative director of Gibbs Smith, “said she realized that no one had ever ‘taken Jane Austen and made it for babies.’ ”        

To which I say (actually, I shouted), of course not -- because the idea of Pride and Prejudice: A BabyLit Counting Primer is simply absurd.

Can a 1-year-old fully appreciate the complexities of either the marriage plot or Mark Darcy? (For those who agree that Austen might not be quite the thing for babies and toddlers, there is The Jane Eyre Counting Primer; I’m guessing that it must go something like this: “1 Rochester, 2 wives”). Creative Director Taylor maintains that “People are realizing that it’s never too young to start putting things in front of them that are a little more meaningful, that have more levels,” which sounds impressive until you come to another title on the list: Anna Karenina: A Babylit Fashion Primer. Here is the description from the publisher’s site:

Introduce your little fashionista to classic fashions in Anna Karenina: A BabyLit Fashion Primer. Elegant illustrations of beautiful gowns, uniforms, hats, gloves, cloaks and more are paired with quotes from Little Master [sic] Tolstoy’s masterpiece to create a sophisticated book full of the finest fashions.            

Presumably the “more” includes a picture of Little Mistress Anna Karenina wearing a onesie that says, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

And yet, as I contemplated the idea of turning classics into baby pap, I began to ask myself, “Why be such a Scrooge?” (see A Christmas Carol, available in both the BabyLit and Cozy Classics series). Why go all Jean-Paul Sartre (author of Nausea, not yet available but possibly pending with the subtitle A Projectile-Vomiting Primer) on this marketing plan? Why not embrace the movement and possibly even pitch some suggestions, such as:

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: A Going-Outdoors Primer (This one might be tricky, because outside of the admonitory line, “Our life is frittered away by detail... simplify, simplify,” which makes his work seem to be the perfect fodder for a BabyLit bestseller, Thoreau’s average sentence would require a multivolume series of at least four board books).

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: A Boxed Set of 2 Classic Crying Primers.

Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus: A Feeding and Diaper-Changing Primer.

Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge: A Throwing Your Ball/Sock/ Applesauce at the Cat Primer.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: A Sibling-Rivalry Primer.

Building on the success of BabyLit’s Romeo and Juliet, why not a child-friendly-20-syllable-enough-for-two-lines-of iambic-pentameter Macbeth: A Hand-Washing Primer.

And may I propose that parents think beyond bedtime reading and start hosting board-book discussion groups?

Conversation, of course, will be limited.


Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.


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