Some re-issues actually improve on the original. Others, not so much . . .
A story betrayed
Originally published on the Tumblon website January 29, 2010
It’s sometimes like wandering into unknown territory if you’ve had favorite books in your own childhood and want to find those same books for your own children. A favorite old book goes out of print, and a generation or so later a publisher decides to re-issue this book—with results that are sometimes wonderful and sometimes so disappointing it makes a person want to cry. I’ve written about this before but the reaction of bookstore owner Terri Schmitz (The Children’s Book Shop, Brookline, Massachusetts) to what Houghton did to Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (Virginia Lee Burton,1939) is worth noting because she is right on target when she writes the following in Horn Book Magazine, Nov-Dec..2007.
“Whose idea was it to take one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, butcher the text and leave out a number of pictures? Poor Mike and Mary Anne. They’re no longer given credit for cutting through the mountains to clear the way for railroads, or smoothing the ground for airport runways. The crucial plot elements that they work faster and better when they have an audience is barely mentioned. And that most dastardly of villains, Selectman Henry B. Swap, never smiles in ‘a rather mean way’ as he plots to back out of paying Mike and Mary Anne for their work digging the cellar for the new town hall.… Where is the unbearable tension as the day wears on and the sun moves inexorably across the sky? What about the drama as Mike and Mary Anne cut each corner of the cellar hole? And why is the heroism of the little boy who rallies the townspeople to cheer on the man and his machine not celebrated? There is no reason to sigh in satisfaction when Mike and Mary Anne triumph in the end, because we haven’t been given the chance to worry that they might actually fail.”
Well, that certainly tells you about Schmitz’ disappointment with this reissue in no uncertain terms. She wonders what “evil genius” prompts publishers to produce board book versions out of popular picture books that should not be board books. Why? Because they eviscerate the original text and illustrations to fit the board book layout. In short, they take the heart out of a book. My question is why make a board book out of book aimed at ages 3-5 or 4-8? Board books are best when written as board books for very little children.
Schmitz makes a critical point when she complains that her strongest objection is that people who purchase this new version will never know what they’re missing, and won’t bother to read the original. And that is a crying shame. Other people won’t recognize the difference, see the title and exclaim, “O, this is a wonderful book!” Then they buy it and think they have the book they remember.
Book fans feel strongly about the sanctity of books—the text and often the original art. An internet check often reveals outraged fans venting their disappointment at edited plots and changes in illustrations because they consider the new edition a travesty. No matter how you feel about this issue, think kindly of such fans if you have not read the original. (However, in the case of Mike Mulligan, all the internet reviews I could find are rave comments about the original book, not the board book. )
Personally I feel a great sympathy for parents and readers who object, for I know that same sense of betrayal when I see someone has tampered with my favorite book. You may not be such a ‘purist,’ but do consider how foolish it is to throw away the past without good reason. Dollars are not good reasons.
On the other hand…
Originally published on the Tumblon website February 5, 2010
In Ruth Krauss’s The Growing Story (1947) a small boy sees everything around him growing during the summer but worries that he can’t see any change in himself. His mother tells him he is getting bigger, but he scarcely believes her until he tries on last winter’s clothes. Krauss has a way of writing these wonderful simple stories about what children know and feel. In the re-issue of this book Helen Oxenbury’s wonderful full-color watercolors make the characters fairly jump off the page—as when the small boy somersaults across the final pages, shouting, “I’m growing, too!” The illustrations in this book make the original edition seem pale and lifeless, even though it was retro-charming. Here’s a case of a reissue that is a winner.
The books of another favorite children’s writer, Charlotte Zolotov, are also being reissued. Her story A Father Like That (1971) has had a dramatic facelift. In the somewhat melancholy story, a little boy says in a matter-of-fact way, “I wish I had a father. But my father went away before I was born.” He tells his mother what his father would be like if he were around—that his father would bring him books when he was sick, would know all his friends’ names, and not make him wear his green shirt. His mother’s response, “I like the kind of father you’re talking about. And in case he never comes, just remember when you grow up, you can be a father like that yourself!” The two-color ink and wash illustrations in the original edition showed a middle-class suburban family with spreads of barbecues, a stay-at-home mother, Little League games, etc. The new edition has full-color painting by LeUyen Pham of an African-American family in an urban setting. Zolotov’s words fit both kinds of illustrations, but this edition will give the book new life.
Other works like those of Roger Duvoisin’ Donkey-donkey (1933) which has been reissued with his own original illustrations. It tells the story of a nice little donkey who is unhappy with his long ears. He tries to change his appearance by wearing his ears sticking out sideways like a sheep, forward like a pig, and down like a dog. He is rescued from this disaster by a sparrow who tells him just to be himself.
Nicolas, Where Have You Been? (1987) by Leo Lionni tells a story of tolerance that fits today’s world. Nicolas and his fellows are young mice who hate birds because they eat all the best berries and leave none for the mice. Then an accident lands Nicolas in a bird’s nest where he is treated with amazing kindness and he learns that “one bad bird doesn’t make a flock.” Nicolas plays the role of a hero in stopping the plan of an attack on the birds by the mice.
Many other golden oldies are in process of being reissued. We need to be glad for publishers who want to prolong the life of a good book by producing a new edition!
© Gladys M. Hunt 2008-10, reissued in 2022 with minor adjustments with permission of the Executor of the Literary Estate of Gladys M. Hunt (4194 Hilton SE, Lowell, MI 49331). Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Also at Redeemed Reader:
- Gladys Hunt enthusiastically welcomed back Ferdinand the Bull in an earlier post: Hurray for Re-Issues!
- Purple House Press is engaged in the good work of re-publishing excellent but little-known titles from the past. See Megan’s interview with publisher Jill Morgan.
- See our review of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel–and be sure to read the original!