Amending the Classics

Many of my colleagues have been discussing book censorship this month. The American Library Association, along with other organizations devoted to books and publishing, sponsors Banned Books Week every year around this time, to focus attention on challenged texts that have been removed, or are in danger of being removed, from schools, public libraries and bookstores.

In addition to outright banning, however, published books are frequently edited, abridged and amended for a variety of reason—some more benign than others. Since a printed book cannot be amended except by re-printing, only the most popular books and books considered “classics” undergo this kind of altering: our most beloved and iconic texts are the ones most at risk. And books for middle-grade readers, sometimes defined as “all the books you remember loving as a child,” represent a huge portion of this group.

Amendments and alterations generally fall into one of four categories:

Changes made to correct racial or gender stereotyping

We cringe today at references to non-Caucasian, non-Western cultures and individuals in books written before the middle of the last century. Such middle-grade favorites as Little House on the Prairie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (which won the Newbery Award in 1923), all have undergone edits to amend or remove offensive depictions of Native Americans and indigenous African tribespeople.

Those types of alterations are easy to defend, but there is growing support for the realization that, however deplorable the attitudes expressed are, they exist within a context that deserves to be examined. The tide of opinion currently seems to favor not making such revisions to previously published work, provided young readers are made aware of the controversy and have the opportunity to engage in a discussion about  the historical impact of racial and gender prejudice.

Changes made to update “contemporary” text

Details of contemporary life change so quickly that some books find themselves outdated long before their popularity wanes—or perhaps something comes along (such as a movie contract) that renews interest in a book written for a previous generation. This was the case recently with Lois Duncan’s Hotel for Dogs. The book was published in 1971, and was subsequently reissued as a companion to the 2009 film based (very loosely) on the original story.

On the first page of the new edition, a character refers to something looking as if it “comes from Home Depot.” Since Home Depot stores did not exist until 1979, this is surely a revision. It’s not the mild anachronism that makes this kind of edit troubling (the text makes no mention of a particular time period), and it seems clear that the author herself made the changes—or at least approved them—so who am I to question her decision?

Because as a reader, I would have been happier if the book had been reissued as it was. It’s a lovely story, very much rooted in a 70s sensibility, but still quite relevant to readers today in its exploration of personal responsibility, friendship and compassion. And because casual edits like this betray a greater interest in the name recognition, or the “brand” of the novel, rather than in the work itself.

Abridging for length, or to make an adult story more accessible to a younger audience

As someone brought up during the heyday of the Classics Illustrated comic book, I freely admit there are some books that even as an English major I would have managed to avoid were it not for abridged editions (Lorna Doone comes to mind). I would rather a young reader pick up an abridged version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer than to ignore it altogether. Scenes such as the one where Tom finagles his friends into whitewashing the fence are so much a part of our cultural vocabulary that they’re worth absorbing in any way you can.

But even the most respectful condensed versions must necessarily focus on plot, at the expense of the power and flow of the language—the essence of what makes these classics “classic.” And at the other end of the scale are abridged versions that retain little more than the title of the original.

How about a compromise? Rely on abridged versions of works intended for adults (if your child is ready to be introduced to Shakespeare, Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare is an excellent place to start); but choose vintage editions of works that were originally meant for younger audiences: Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, for example, and Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, by Mary Mapes Dodge. You may be surprised at how easily your middle-grade reader adjusts to exploring universal themes at a more sedate pace. It’s worth the effort to catch a first-hand glimpse of life as our forebears thought it should be.

Which brings us to the fourth, and, to my mind, the most deplorable type of alteration:

Changes to make works more palatable for “modern readers”

Think of all the ways a young reader is cheated by smoothing out “quaint” language, replacing outmoded expressions, or removing archaic references. These echoes of another era are part of our common intellectual history, they ground us in an appreciation of common concerns across generations . . . and they’re just plain interesting.

My daughters were fond of asking me what it was like in the “olden days.” (Kids actually enjoy talking about what went before.) So, once I got through explaining that I grew up in a boring suburban split-level with most of the usual conveniences, should I have avoided mentioning my Betsy Wetsy doll? After all, my daughters had never seen a Betsy Wetsy (and, frankly, the concept—hey, a doll that tinkles!—seems a little weird to me now, too). Should I have pretended I owned a Cabbage Patch doll instead, so they could relate? That’s exactly what misguided “modern” editions do.

I expect I was a particularly nerdy child, but I thought it was kind of cool to come across, in one of the books inherited from my mother, reference to a ’bus—because when I asked about the random apostrophe, I found out they used to be called “omnibuses.” It was like learning a secret language!

And why, for heaven’s sake, change Nancy Drew’s blue roadster to a “blue convertible”? If the text has her driving her “little blue roadster,” a kid’s going to assume that it’s either some sort of car or a strangely-hued farm animal. Why deprive them of the fun of figuring out which?

When my girls were younger, it was hard to find a copy of Little Women that hadn’t been “abridged for modern readers.” What . . . miss out on the cherry-bounce*?!? I think I drove my mother-in-law crazy insisting that if she intended to buy her granddaughters a copy, it had better be the original. Bless her heart, she eventually found one.

Thanks to the efforts of organizations like the ALA, the American Booksellers Association and others, authors, parents and educators are aware of the dangers to intellectual freedom posed by book-banning. As we celebrate children’s literature in general and middle-grade books in particular, it is our obligation also to consider less radical threats to the integrity of the books we cherish.

The good news is that beautiful editions of unabridged classics are readily available. I wish they weren’t so often relegated to the back corner of the bookstore, but one mustn’t quibble. These collections are usually on sale—seek them out. Bring some old favorites down from the attic, too. Read them together; talk about the difficult parts. Share a bit of cultural heritage. And once you’ve provided your children with this wonderfully solid literary context, send them back out to explore the wealth of work being written today especially for those newly expanded minds of theirs.

*One character’s mispronunciation of “char-à-banc,” a type of horse-drawn carriage with bench seats, mentioned in Little Women.


Bonnie Adamson is working on a middle-grade novel set in the really, truly olden days before split-level houses and Betsy Wetsy dolls.

  1. Very important post and beautifully written. I would want to keep classics as “pure” to the original as possible. All of the situations you describe above can be explained when we talk to our kids about the books – which, hopefully, we all do (or someone does).

  2. What a great topic, Bonnie. And your research is terrific. I think we need to let kids think for themselves rather than deciding what’s right for them.

  3. I am eternally grateful to the English teacher at my Catholic high school who pulled me aside at the beginning of the Chaucer unit and told me to run to Powell’s and buy the unexpurgated version! Kids can handle the books we throw at them!

  4. Interesting post, Bonnie! Certainly something to think about.