Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Literary poseurs, junior division

Sunday's Times featured another installment in their ongoing series, "parenting strategies of the anxious and overeducated," but one in which I took a greater-than-average interest. "A Library of Classics, Edited for the Teething Set," describes the apparent publishing-world trend of converting classic works of literature--Moby-Dick, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, and Les Miserables are some of the titles mentioned--into those chunky, brightly-colored, eight-or-ten-page board books intended for preverbal children. The thinking seems to be that if you're the kind of parent eager to bestow every possible cognitive and cultural advantage on your child (by exposing her to classical music in the womb, teaching her a second language from birth), then surely you wouldn't want to omit Great Literature!

None of the regular ol' board books I've encountered in my friends' homes has much of a plot, but apparently neither do the "classic" works described in the article (which is just as well, since that the stories Tolstoy and Hugo tell aren't the most toddler-friendly). Instead, they seem to feature the simple images and terse, vocabulary-building sentences typical of the genre. The Moby-Dick book sounds like it's mostly a collection of pictures of whales and ships and some nautical terms.

Several of the people quoted in the article express skepticism about the project, but ultimately shrug their shoulders: the books do no harm, so if parents want to spend a bunch of extra money and flatter themselves that they're exposing their children to High Culture--well, whatever. They're still reading to their children and spending time with them.

I suppose that's the right take on the matter, but I roll my eyes a little harder than the author of the article. Because you know what? If you care so much about great literature, you could just read bits of Melville or Austen to your child. They're beautiful writers, well worth reading aloud. And if any special reading you do with your kid at eighteen months is capable of having an unusual impact on her eventual aesthetic sensibility or verbal facility, it's exposing her to complex syntax, unusual diction, and a variety of sentence rhythms.*

Moreover, if you expect your child someday to be a reader--or a lover of classical music, or speaker of foreign languages, or whatever else you're shooting for--your best bet is to do those things yourself. Really and truly, and not because you think it will give her an edge in Ivy League admissions. Do them because you already like them, or because you want to try them out to see if you like them. Now's the time for you to learn more about classical music: buy real albums, not Baby Mozart. Now's the time to start learning a foreign language, rather than just outsourcing the task to the au pair. And if you urgently want your kid to read the classics, well, you could start by reading some poetry aloud to her. Or some passages from Faulkner, or the King James Bible, or whatever you find appealing.

(It's ridiculous, by the way, that the only reading aloud most adults do is to their kids. If you're a reader, read aloud now and then, to yourself or your spouse or a friend.)

So, no: there's no harm in these board books; if I had a kid and someone gave me one, I'm sure I'd think it was adorable. It's not inconceivable that I might buy one for a friend. Just don't fool yourself that it's doing anything more for your child than any other board book--or that it's any kind of evidence of your literary taste or sophistication.

N.B. I'm not saying that parents should be reading the classics aloud to their 18-month-olds; I'm just saying it's a more plausible route to the kind of advantage the parents featured in the article seem to be looking for.


Fretful Porpentine said...

You are absolutely right, of course, but I have to admit I couldn't resist getting the Dracula counting book for my older nephew because it was so ridiculously adorable. I mean, how can you resist baby Gothic?

Flavia said...


Yeah, I think the problem is with the way the books are being framed than with their mere existence. Most purchasers probably don't buy into the idea that they're giving their kids some great advantage; a parent just likes Jane Austen, so enjoys having an Austen-themed board book, too.

But the larger anxiety about how to give a child a leg up is certainly out there, and can infect even otherwise sane and sensible people when those around them are acting nuts.

I had a HS acquaintance with whom I'm barely in touch--although I feel warmly toward her--send me a long email as her first child approached her first birthday, wondering what my experience of my Ivy alma mater was, and whether I thought she & her husband should plan on sending their daughter to a private (grade & high) school if they wanted her to be prepared and competitive. Everything I know about this woman suggests she's funny and grounded and calls 'em like she sees 'em; I inferred from her email that some of the parents in her neighborhood were shaking her belief in her more laid-back parenting style.

Rivikah said...

I'd bet some of this is for the parents. I have 16 months of experience that says standard board books can get really really boring. He'd happily read "Duck, Sheep, Horse, Cow, PIG!" over and over again all afternoon, but for my sanity as a parent more variety is essential. Some connection to stories that I'm interested in doesn't hurt either.

These fairy tales ( ) are fun, for example.

Just reading him the books that I want to read doesn't work as well as you'd think. He likes to turn the pages, he's not gentle about it, and he won't wait while I read a whole page of text.

i said...


I was glad for your footnote, Flavia, because when I was reading your post I had to think, "Man, I can't get my kid to sit still for me to read the one line on each page of his kids' books, how am I supposed to read a bunch of prose to him?" He loves books, will actually sit and examine them at length, but it's all about the pictures for him. And, well, the animal noises we either made while reading him the books, or the books make themselves.

I so agree with you about the bigger point though. Either cultivate an interest yourself in the finer things, or, even better, do as Montaigne's dad did and ban them! If these ambitious parents were at all as clever as they hope their kids will be, they'd forbid their children from watching or listening to opera (too much sex and violence), reading great literature (ibid), and so on.

Flavia said...

i (and Rivikah):

Yes, my main point is that the best "enrichment" activities are those that the parents enjoy and participate in, too. One of my grad school colleagues had young children, and I remember him commenting one day that he'd been reading poetry to the baby: "she likes Chaucer much better than Auden!" But he was reading poetry anyway, as part of his ordinary life, not doing it specifically for her benefit--nor was that her ordinary reading material.

I don't have kids, but I've long observed (first with my own parents, but now with my friends who have children) that one of the great things about children is that they introduce you to new things, too: sports, arts activities, whatever. Ideally, then, this is a two-way street: they grow up learning about opera and jazz, because that's what you're listening to at home, and you learn a ton of stats about international soccer stars or sports-cars or the history of ballet--or you pick up a little conversational Mandarin--to engage their interests.

i said...

I'm so torn! I badly want to mention that my 19-month-old directed my husband to start playing guitar this evening, then crawled up on a footstool and banged on my doumbek in accompaniment. But I don't want to be that mother. Okay, I just was, but only to prove you're right, Flavia. Only for that.

Anyway, what you're describing is one of the main reasons my husband and I decided to have a kid at all. We wanted to share our passions with him. He doesn't have to be passionate about them, but we're into a lot of things we think are pretty cool, and we thought it would be great to grow up around that.

I will say this in favour of the educational kids books and the baby Mozart... sometimes just making it through a day is exhausting enough that I do forget to put on some music or read to him or do something nice like that. It seems enough to have changed diapers, fed the kid, and gotten him ready for bed. So if a combination of parental guilt and ambition reminds people to spend time reading at all, or exposing the kid to beautiful music of whatever kind, then maybe it's not so bad. Even if "Truck Duck" and Ricky Martin would do the trick too.

i said...

Oh, and Rivikah, I hear you, and thanks for the book tip too. Is it weird that I continue to find "Truck Duck" fascinating though? I keep asking myself, how did they come up with so many animals that rhyme with vehicles, or vice versa? It's almost like the manifest destiny of the English language, that whole Angles and Saxons and Jutes jazz, all the church Latin and the conquering Danes and the Normans, the Americas, all of that stuff, was all just meant to result in the rhyming beauty that is Truck Duck.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Anent adults reading to one another: one of my favorite bedtime activities of the last few decades was the month when I read Fitzgerald's translation of the Odyssey to my wife before turning out the lights. I should do that kind of thing more often.

Anonymous said...

I read (to the Daughters) Kipling, Shakespeare’s Comedies, Calvin and Hobbs, Dr. Seuss and a number of children’s books that did not survive the third daughter. Number One Daughter came home and claimed Kipling's Just So with illustrations (annotated by number Three daughter in her red crayon period) shortly before Number one Granddaughter came on the scene. I keep finding markers in books indicating who claims this tome when the old rascal is gone.

Miriam said...

My father fondly remembers getting his first exposure to all the big literary works via "classics" comic books in the early 50s, and I had some similar comics in the late 70s. So this is really a repackaged old idea, not a new one.

Flavia said...


Isn't it a pleasure? I always hope that the amount of reading aloud we do in my classes encourages some of my students to do it at home, too.


This strikes me as a different phenomenon. Of course there have long been "classics for kids"--whether those be picture books, comics, young readers, or even short novelized retellings of classic literature (starting with the Bible). The difference is that the children reading those books are capable of following the plot, and there's some genuine cultural utility to knowing the plots of, say, Shakespeare plays or great novels before one reads them in the original--or if indeed one never reads them at all.

These board books, on the other hand, are aimed at children too young to understand plot. The Austen book has one image and one word per two-page spread, so Elizabeth and Darcy are walking on one page, with STROLL written on the other. There's really no possible transmission of anything to do with Austen here.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

When I had my first kiddo, a few different people bought me "Shakespeare for kids" books. They had a bizarre amalgamation of tragedies and comedies. (Why would I read Macbeth to a toddler? Or Taming of the Shrew?) Anyway. I haven't used them. They sit in pristine shape on my shelves. However, when Eldest doesn't want to go to bed, sometimes he'll bring me my Norton Shakespeare and ask me to read from it. I started with As You Like It, and he said about Act 1, scene 1, that it was just like Thor and Loki's sibling rivalry. Right on, Eldest! He really likes hearing me read Shakespeare. I put an album of Midsummer one time, and he wasn't interested. But when I read it? Totally into it. I think it's just that he wants to share something with me. It's cool. But I'm convinced that a board book would diminish the experience.