Wednesday 11 February 2015

Sacred Texts?

Jacqueline Wilson is to publish an updated version of Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did in July (see Bookseller article, on the back of her success last year with Four Children and It, a contemporary reworking of E Nesbit’s Five Children and It. Why has she done it? Presumably the idea is to bring the stories she loved as a child to modern readers. Either that, or else after writing a hundred books she’s running out of ideas.

I’m saddened by the idea of this. What Katy Did isn’t a hard book to read, and Five Children and It is perfectly simple. Certainly there are some bits of language that might read oddly to a modern child's ears and they might come across mention of ways of doing things or objects or events that are unfamiliar. There’s always the possibility with old books like these that children are going to be exposed to attitudes that aren’t acceptable any more. But why should that be a problem? Surely coming across the unfamiliar in books, struggling to understand it, is how we learn.

It’s not that I think that original texts are sacred and shouldn’t be tampered with. If that were true we’d never have ended up with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs or Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones or Clueless. But what these examples do is take something of the original and use it to make a new original, not simply an easy-read version. If an author can't add something of their own, they ought to leave well alone.

I’m not sure whether Jacqueline Wilson's intention is to do the same for these classic children's books as those abridged versions of classics they sometimes give children to read in schools. I hope not, because why would you do that? As if there weren’t plenty of fabulous books out there accessible to readers of all abilities. I can’t judge because Wilson's Katy isn't out yet and I haven’t read her Four Children and It, though I have to admit, I was curious when it came out, but had no excuse to buy it as my daughters have grown out of her. I’d like to think Jacqueline Wilson and her publishers believe that readers will read her versions and be brought around to the originals, on the same principle that people who see a film or TV series they like will then go out and buy the book. Maybe they will. It's possible, I suppose.

In my experience of working with children in primary schools I’ve noticed that a lot of children go through a ‘Jacqueline Wilson phase’. It isn’t always Jacqueline Wilson (when I was a child, it was Enid Blyton) and it isn’t always girls, but few other authors lend themselves quite so much to this phase because few are quite so prolific. During this time, unless forced, they pretty much won’t read anything else by any other author, but they will read and read and read from their author of choice. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a sort of initiation into being a reader, where a child suddenly realises the joy to be had from reading and relishes the passage of story from page to brain. And when they come out of the phase, suddenly the whole world of books is open to them. And when they do, maybe they’ll remember that in amongst all the other stories that JW gave them there was something about a girl called Katy, and look, here on the shelf there’s this old book, What Katy Did, maybe that’ll be good …


  1. If you haven't read Four Children why are you ranting? Perhaps it's a perfectly enjoyable story that children identify with. I read a lot. but much as I like the stories of Dickens, Austen et al, I don't particularly like picking through the old-fashioned language. Surely anything that encourages children to read in this digital age is good, no?

    1. It is the principle of adapting and simplifying children's books from the past that I find discouraging. While I agree it is good to encourage children to read, there are already many, many fabulous books in existence and more are written every day. Sometimes reading something older can be a stretch, but so what? By simplifying and modernising a book, you lose so much. I honestly don't know how you can separate the stories of Dickens or Jane Austen from the language they are written in. I feel much the same about movies and TV series made from books, though of course all these things can bring people to read the originals in the end.

    2. And now I've found Four Children and It, and read it, I feel much the same, ie I wish she'd left it alone but I understand her reasons for wanting to write it.


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