Classics for Young Kids

Just a few weeks before my second child, a daughter, was born, I stopped at a bookstore with my son and we bought her a book. It was Pride and Prejudice: A Babylit Counting Primer by Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver. In just 10 pages, we visited the story of Pride and Prejudice by learning about some of the important countable nouns in it: FIVE sister, TEN thousand pounds. The pictures are modern, and for this particular “primer” the nouns highlighted are lots of fun. Will a baby “get” the plot of the classic novel? No, but it sure is fun for a mama who loves the book!

New to the classics for babies scene is the Cozy Classics series by Jack and Holman Wang (Simply Read Books, 2012). In a similar way, these books share the plot with the youngest people, but these books do with just one word on each page. It’s amazing how they manage to share so much of the story in one word per page! The accompanying pictures are photographs of needle-point felt dolls and scenes. I am not able to sew in anyway so this is very impressive to me too. I read the Pride and Prejudice and the Moby Dick Cosy Classics as digital review copies from the publisher. Does a child need to know “peg leg”? No, but the format is a fun one for the parent who loves the classics!

And then there is a more complete picture book version. I discovered Moby Dick: Chasing the Great White Whale by Eric A. Kimmel and Andrew Glass (Feiwel and Friends, 2012) as a part of the Cybils 2012 fiction picture book judging process. It is a poetic sea shanty retelling of the story of Moby Dick. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I love reading the classics, so I was delighted to see a picture book about a favorite book of mine, although I must admit I was surprised to see Moby Dick, of all classic books, retold in picture book format. The book is so much fun for someone who enjoys Moby Dick. It begins with “Call me Ishmael” and it really does capture the feeling of the book in some respects: the desire to go whaling, the night in the inn with a man with a tattooed head, meeting Captain Ahab, the anticipation of the chase. The illustrations are gorgeous paintings, and one can see the brush strokes in the marvelously rich pages. I really enjoyed seeing the story come to life in the pictures. And yet, there is something odd as a whole about this as a picture book. One of the things I love about Moby Dick is the rich language; so much of my enjoyment of the book depends on the eloquent ponderings of the narrator.

As a whole, the story of Moby Dick is rather gruesome: sailors hunting down a large animal and killing it in a brutal and disgusting way. In the picture book, the language is reduced to a sea shanty rhyme, and the illustrations do the talking. It’s a nice introduction to Moby Dick’s plot but do young children really need the plot? I also took exception to the “moral” added to the end of the picture book. Herman Melville’s creation is certainly not something that ends with a trite moral: it’s far more complicated than the plot suggests, and his purposes in writing it (the “moral” if you will) is something to explore in doctoral length dissertations, not picture books. I don’t believe it was necessary to sum up the book in such a trite way: I believe it detracts from the whole.

In the end, then, I’m rather conflicted about this picture book: I love it since I love the original, but I wonder as to the necessity of it for children. Do we really want to talk about chasing and killing whales with our young ones? Why not wait until children can experience Melville himself?

Note: I received digital review copies of the Cozy Classics books for review consideration.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

I will not put Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (published 1851) on my favorite books list because it’s simply not a favorite novel (I shudder at each description of whale blubber).  And yet, I must give Moby-Dick a solid five stars out of five for the rich reading experience it provides. I simply loved reading it. Much as other great works in world literature, such as War and Peace and Hamlet or (maybe) even East of Eden, Moby Dick gives innovative depth and breadth to a majestic subject, creating a universal epic of good and evil in the guise of a novel about something that may otherwise seem insignificant.

Moby-Dick is about much more than a whaling ship’s voyage, the biology of a whale, or even an insane whale-ship captain’s revenge on a whale. Reading Moby-Dick is a cultural experience, and the novel itself is a marvel in the detail Melville provides to create a composite picture of the mid-nineteenth century America. In addition, despite the clear setting (it could not be the same story without the whale hunting and whale fact digressions), the story is a universal one: fate versus choice, good versus evil, sanity versus insanity, God versus man.Continue Reading

Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

I’ve been looking forward to rereading Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick, since I first read it about a decade ago. Alas, my book club meets in two weeks and I’m struggling to get time to read the marvelous epic!

Before I picked it up, I decided to read Nathaniel Philbrick’s small tribute to the novel, appropriately titled Why Read Moby-Dick? (published 2011, Viking). I loved reading of Phillbrick’s personal experience with the novel! Part literary criticism, part author biography, and part personal tribute to a favorite novel, Why Read Moby-Dick? certainly reinforced to my mind the many ways that Melville’s epic surpasses expectations and extends beyond its contemporary era into our own.

I enjoyed reading Philbrick’s manifesto as I began reading the novel myself. It was a reminder that the complexities of Moby Dick are best appreciated when encountered slowly.

A few examples of some concepts and quotes I loved from Philbrick:

The first wave of critics to appreciate Melville’s novel, which was not until after World War I, were impressed that Melville “conveyed the specifics of a past world even as he luxuriated in the flagrant and erratic impulses of his own creative process.” (page 7)

After quoting from the chapter on Nantucket (which ends with a tribute to the sperm whale), Philbrick writes:

And so it ends, this little sidebar of miraculous prose, one of many that Melville scatters like speed bumps throughout the book as he purposely slow the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl. (page 21)

There is an inevitable tendency to grow impatient with the novel, to want to rush and even skip over what may seem like yet another extraneous section and find out what, if anything, is going to happen next to Ahab and the Pequod. Indeed, as the plot is left to languish and entire groups of characters vanish without a trace, you might begin to think that the book is nothing more than a sloppy, self-indulgent jumble. But Melville is conveying the quirky artlessness of life through his ramshackle art. “Careful disorderliness,” Ishmael assures us, “is the true method.”

I’m about 25% finished with Melville’s novel. I’m entering the first of many treatises on cetaceans. While I know I must read a bit faster to finish in time for my book club, I’m still really hoping I can enjoy the methodical crawl Melville so carefully created in his tome — and I certainly am enjoying, once again, the parallels to today that Philbrick so wonderfully illuminated.

While I don’t think Philbrick is going to convince anyone that is decidedly against Moby-Dick, he may encourage the intimated reader to give it a try. And he certainly got me, an interested reader who enjoyed the book a decade ago, very excited to revisit it.