Prentiss Riddle: Kids

aprendiz de todo, maestro de nada

Prentiss Riddle

home art austin books
causes chuckles garden
kids language movies
music time toys travel
Search this site

Archive by date
Archive by title

Kiddie gothic lit

When I was a kid I loved Classics Illustrated comics, perhaps even more than Batman, Superman and the other DC titles I also read.

My fondness for Classics Illustrated started when I was five years old. I had seen a fragment of Moby Dick on TV and asked for the book for Christmas. My parents were stumped -- I was reading but not quite ready for Melville! -- until they landed on the Classics Illustrated edition.

So I was pleased when I found a used copy of what I think may be a repackaging of the old Classics Illustrated edition. It's a library-bound black and white book, about 14x21 cm, identified as the "Illustrated Classic Book Club / Weekly Reader Books" edition from Pendulum Press (1973, ISBN 0-88301-099-2). I can't say for sure that it's the same. The black and white rendering and the horrible typesetting of what should be hand-lettered text butcher the art. Some images, like Ishmael walking into town with his seaman's bag on his shoulder or the whale's tooth caught in the oarlock of Ahab's boat, seem very familiar; others don't, such as Ishmael floating at the end on an unidentified piece of wreckage which should be Queequeg's coffin.

Be that as it may, I read the book to my kids. I also read them a very faithful comic edition of Frankenstein (since misplaced) and have bought but not yet given them the DK Eyewitness edition of Dracula.

Moby Dick: Ishmael meets Queequeg   Eyewitness Dracula

This set off a small controversy in our household (now two households). The girls' mom feels that these books are too violent for them. I suppose I'd agree about Dracula, but Moby Dick and even Frankenstein are not splatter books, they have literary value and contain complex moral questions that redeem their violence. She even objected to kids' versions of Greek myths, but eventually she came around on those.

Meanwhile their mom has no problem with slaughter or gore in a different genre: the Indian series of Amar Chitra Katha Illustrated Classics. Clearly patterned after Classics Illustrated, these are retellings of religious and secular stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, animal fables and trickster stories of India, as well as the historical exploits of various kings and independence fighters from the precolonial and colonial times. The series is admirably multicultural; although the religious epics make it Hinduism-heavy, Muslim and Sikh kings and warriors also figure prominently, as do Buddhist religious tales. Unfortunately it's not so progressive in a couple of other ways; monsters and bad guys are generally dark-skinned, heroes light, and the role of women -- don't get me started. But despite that and some uneven writing and art, Amar Chitra Katha is great: it's allowing me and the girls an immersion in Indian storytelling I don't think we'd have found any other way.

Amar Chitra Katha

However, the series is not sweetly expurgated for children. From Krishna urging Arjuna to fulfill his duty and kill his cousins on the battlefield, to the depredations of endless armies of humans and rakshasas, to Shakespearian plots of fratricidal royals and jealous lovers, the comics are full of gore and mayhem. (Not much sex, though, unless you count the dancing girls, who must have been the Victoria's Secret catalog for a couple of generations of Indian boys before MTV Asia and stronger stuff became readily available.) My girls' mom believes that the violence is offset by the moral value of the stories. Call me an ignorant farangi, but to me the moral universe of the comic version of most of these stories is, at best, good guys vs. bad guys and, at worst, an exhortation to accept the miserable lot you've been given in this life and your reward will be pie in the sky by and by.

I'm making this sound like a bigger deal than it is -- I'm happy that my daughters are reading Amar Chitra Katha and I'm happy to put off spooky western lit for a while longer. But this particular culture clash in a family which has been relatively free of such things strikes me as odd and worth thinking about more.

However, for myself if not yet the girls, I'm trying to figure out the cheapest place to buy copies of old Classics Illustrated comics. Or reprints, if they exist. Suggestions?

kids 2003.09.01 link