Prentiss Riddle: Kids

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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


speaking of...what's happened to the sasialit listserv?

raman • 2003.09.01
e-bay seems to be moving them at $2-$3 each.

midori [sellersbrisko cxe earthlink punkto net] • 2003.09.02
Seems like violence is just a part of cultural history to many storytellers. I've had the same questions, especially when I was a full-time nanny ten years ago.

When I was amn au pair mädchen in Germany, I read a lot of stories to my charges. (Antonia and Charlotte, who were 2 1/2 and 4 when I got there and I was there almost two years). The grandparents had presented them with tomes of Grimm fairy tales, and they were grim! Cinderella's stepsisters cutting off their toes to get into the shoe, lots of hacking and chopping and boiling of bad kids, etc. I was afraid the violence alone would give the girls nightmares. Sometimes it did, but in general they liked those stories as much as the regular happy ones we read.

Of course, these stories weren't imparting any kind of history, besides storytelling history. So I read them but always put them back in the far corners of the bookshelves so that other, livelier, less scary books were front and center.

christina [ataraxy cxe jeskey punkto com] • 2003.09.02
Christina, your post reminds me of a book I hadn't thought of in a while, Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Bettelheim's thesis, as I understood it from a lot of press he got at the time of its publication, was that the spooky and apparently unwholesome stuff in folk tales is actually good for children; its presentation in the form of a fantasy gives children a safe way to begin to think about the horrors of the world.

However, since his death in 1990 Bettelheim has been exposed as a fraud and perhaps an exploiter of children. In particular his work on autism has been discredited and some hair-raising stories have emerged from the home he ran for disturbed children. I don't know whether his point about fairy tales has survived the debunking of the rest of his work.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2003.09.02
i don't think that dracula is particularly violent, with the exception of lucy westenra's staking -- what i do think is really interesting for the more sophisticated reader is the sexual subversion at play in that novel. in fact, i wrote a whole paper on just that topic. i would say to give dracula to yr girls when they're in high school and teach them the fine art of close reading, an indispensible skill.

p.s. did you see the letter to the editor in the chron asking about the wheatpasted food posters around the city?

melanie [mojomariposa cxe yahoo punkto com] • 2003.09.02
Melanie, you're probably right, there's probably much more violence in any episode of Power Rangers than in Bram Stoker's novel; what spooks me must be the sex. It's the same with some of the Hindu tales, by the way -- why exactly did Ravanna steal Sita away to Lanka and why didn't Rama want her back after he and his pals rescued her?

Good liberal parents like us take great pains to explain to our kids from an early age where babies come from and what the names of all the parts are, but tend to say little about their not-strictly-reproductive functions or what our heads might have to do with it all. Not even in an, ahem, "vanilla" context, let alone what might motivate vampires, for heaven's sake.

Why am I reminded of Margaret Sanger and the other pioneers who risked jail to educate people about how their bodies worked? Maybe we need someone equally brave to start teaching kids about how their libidos work.

P.S. About the wheatpaste letter: no, I missed it. What week did it appear? I'm looking at the Chronicle letters online and can't seem to find it. I heard that the Statesman tracked down the artists and interviewed them, but I haven't seen that piece, either.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2003.09.02
Prentiss, your post reminds me of a book I hadn't thought of in a while, Jack Zipes' wonderful Don't Bet On the Prince, Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America. If you haven't already read it (I'm guessing you have), it's pretty great. Zipes is a professor of German at U. Minnesota, and has written a bunch of other books on fairy tales and modern culture.

I bought Don't Bet on the Prince when I was in college. It's a compendium of modernized fairy tales by other authors and essays on fairy tales by Zipes. I can still remember my favorite fairy tale from that volume... I think I had the girls I was nanny for in Chicago memorize it, too!

And Then the Prince Knelt Down and Tried to Put the Glass Slipper on Cinderella's Foot
by Judith Viorst

I really didn't notice that he had a funny nose
And he certainly looked better all dressed up in fancy clothes
He's not nearly as attractive as he seemed the other night
So I think I'll just pretend that this glass slipper feels too tight

I think I am going to go home and read the rest of them tonight!

christina [ataraxy cxe jeskey punkto com] • 2003.09.02
Gail Carson Levine stories - much better than Don't Bet on the Prince.

abebooks is great if you are a book collector. Looks like they have a lot of the series you are looking for. Also see and (a bit scary but at least it lists all the books in the series).

badgerbag [lizzard cxe bookmaniac punkto net] • 2003.10.28
I think the goth life is just another way to bother people with out geting in trouble. When I was 10 I wanted to be a goth. All because I wanted to be different. Now that i'm 11 I figured out that ba goth is a very important thing.

Travis Adams [travisrocks cxe peoplepc punkto com] • 2004.10.19
Being goth rocks even though I will probaly be hated by a lot of people in my school. By the way "School Sucks"

Travis Adams [travisrocks cxe peoplepc punkto com] • 2004.10.19
Interesting. I don't think there's a direct connection between an interest in the books I mention above and the goth lifestyle. At least I hope not!

Now if they were reading Anne Rice in elementary school I'd be worried...

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.10.19
The Pendulum Press book that you have was illustrated by Alex Nino and first published in 1973. The artwork has been reprinted since then.

Obviously the adaptation is not from the original Classics Illustrated series, though the artist may have referred to an old CI comic for reference.

Classics Fan • 2007.06.06
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