How ‘Great Illustrated Classics’ Ruined My Life


Okay, so that is a bit melodramatic and more than a bit unfair.

For those of you who don’t know, Great Illustrated Classics is a series by Baronet Books, a “treasury of 66 classic titles, a collection of books beautifully illustrated and adapted for young readers.” They carried a ton of them in my elementary school and my middle school. And I read a ton of them.

The problem is that they’re really just dumbed down versions of books that are great creations in their own right, true classics that deserve to be read and appreciated for themselves, without having read a scrubbed clean and stripped down outline beforehand.  I read almost all of the Illustrated Classics. I now wish I had waited a few years to read the original works or had read the original works right then and there- some of them are annotations of books that were children’s books to begin with!

That said, my feelings are a bit unfair because I’m very much aware that the Illustrated Classics, all being gathered in one place, facilitated my love of literature, particularly classics. Would I be so into catching up on the classics now if I hadn’t had those easily digestible finger foods back in the day? (To stretch this analogy to the breaking point- if an Ilustrated Classic is a Hostess Ding Dong (another thing I haven’t had since elementary school), the original books are usually Triple Chocolate Tortes- do those even exist?)
You can see the complete library of Illustrated Classics here. But I’m going to break down the ones that I read into two categories: books I wish I had waited to read in their original form and books I wish I had just read in their original form right then and there (late elementary to early middle school)- the books that my kids (Mashallah) will have on their shelves.

Books I should have waited for, so that the first time could be special:

  • A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Haha, so I’m starting this list with a cheat. I never read the IC version of the book, but I read the original in high school and absolutely adored it.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas: I loved the IC and I loved the original when I finally read it a few years ago. So much that was left out.
  • David Copperfield, Charles Dickens: I still haven’t read this, either in IC form or original form. It’s long and it scares me- BUT THAT’S NO REASON TO TRUNCATE IT. I will face my fear and read it in full or not at all.
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson: AGGHHH. I read the IC in elementary. Still a bit graphic for my young mind, but I loved it and in 7th grade when my English teacher said we were going to read it, I was excited to read the ‘grown up book’.  And then she distributed copies of the Illustrated Classic. Shoot me.
  • Dracula, Bram Stoker: Never read the IC. Loved the original. How did they even turn this into an IC? It’s so bloody and sexy.
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley: Pretty much the same verdict as with Jekyll and Hyde. I read the IC and it was great, but the original is so much better. It’s a horror novel. Let it be a horror novel.
  • Great Expectations, Charles Dickens:  I LOVED the original when I eventually read it (in early high school?). I loved the IC in elementary but was dissatisfied by the not-exactly-happy ending. In though it’s perfect for the novel.
  • The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne: I never ran across this as an IC but having read the book, how the hell did they make this an Illustrated Classic?
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo: Adapting this book for childrenmakes as much sense as adapting it for a Disney movie (wait, they did do that). I was surprised, as a ten year old by how much more gruesome and… deviant this was than the Disney film. Wait, so you can be battered by the full and unexpected force of Victor Hugo’s penchant for the corrupt and diseased.
  • Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott: I have yet to read anything original by Scott. I only understand what was going on in the IC with the Saxons and Normans in hindsight, and it’s kind of important.
  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte: They’ll make you read it twenty times in high school, so you might as well wait. And while it’s not Charlotte Bronte’s best (in my official opinion) it’s a book that really deserves the time of day.
  • Moby Dick, Herman Melville: I had the lovely opportunity to read Mom’s old copy with her notes scribbled in the margins. While I understand the compulsion to annotate this book (what with the chapters upon chapters about whaling technique and cetacean anatomy) it’s a sublime beautiful stupendous classic and if you touch it you’re a philistine. It’s like a symphony compared to a commercial jingle. A Ding Dong to a torte. Lord save us.
  • Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens: I don’t remember reading the IC, though I have a feeling I did. (The thing IC never really correctly portrays about Dickens is that he’s funny, is it because they think children won’t get the humor and wit? Is it because as a child I didn’t get the humor and wit? Either is an argument for waiting till a riper age).
  • The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux: I read the original during senior year of high school when I was home sick (and wearing Chanel No. 22- I have no idea why I remember all of these details). This one could slide into the children’s book category- it’s a bit strange and murderous but very adventursome, which excuses so many things. (Make sure you have a good translation, mine was terrible- everyone was speaking with modern slang).
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde: I was enormously disturbed and titillated by the IC. The original is even more so.
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • The Call of the Wild, Jack London: This IC was a favorite of mine, in spite of the violence. Still the original is better.
  • White Fang, Jack London
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne: This is a hard one. I once again understand the desire to edit. This was maybe the only time I enjoyed the IC more than the original- and I chalk that up to reading the original too early, before I realized I was allowed to skim the chapters listing zoophytes and delving into marine life classification. Sci fi and adventuresome.

Books I should have read immediately in their original versions:

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe: By the time I hunted up the original I was too old for it, and I did love the IC very much.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The stories are so short! They should be read one by one before bed with a mystery-loving adult or on one’s lonesome.
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
  • Aesop’s Fables, Aesop: Come on, they’re one to two paragraphs each, what is this nonsense?
  • Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll: I skipped the IC and went from making my parents read the early garden scene over and over to me before bed (an early elementary school phase, what can I say) to reading the full story on a summer’s day early in high school. Lovely and appropriate.
  • Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery: Lovely and appropriate and a children’s classic.
  • Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne: Maybe one better read with a parent. I read the book (and not the IC) with Dad.
  • A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett: Again in things that don’t need to be dumbed down.
  • Black Beauty, Anna Sewell: So maybe the book is a bit tough love. Is that bad?
  • Cinderella and Other Stories and Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories, The Little Mermaid and Other Stories, Sleeping Beauty and Other Stories, Snow White and Other Stories: They’re fucking fairy tales, what are you doing?
  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales: So a lot of fairy tales, Grimm’s not least among them, are gory and disturbing. Elementary age children can handle them.
  • Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
  • Heidi, Johanna Spyri: I was too old to enjoy this when I tried to read the original. It’s about a child living in the Alps with adorable goats. Why would you ever need to clean that up? It’s so wholesome.
  • The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells: Less wholesome, but adventure is out there, as they say in up.
  • The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling: A nice book divided up into little stories that don’t necessarily all connect, but that are referenced within one another. It’s beautiful, and not just about Mowgli and Balloo and Bagheera, as Disney would have you believe.
  • King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Howard Pyle: Thankfully if you missed this one as a child, there’s always The Mists of Avalon.
  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, Washington Irving: One is never too old for these enchanting short stories.
  • Little Women, Louisa May Alcott: It was already a children’s book, but okay. Load your kids up with all four books in the series.
  • The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Howard Pyle
  • Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
  • Pollyanna, Eleanor H. Porter: This is the most optimistic book ever. I felt a bit disgusted by the optimism even in elementary. It’s not going to please you once you’re past twelve (at most). Read the original while you’re still naive and innocent.
  • The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Kate Douglas Wiggin: Yep, so much sex and violence they need to cut out of this one. Sunnybrook Farm sounds like an absolutely depraved place. Real Housewives of Sunnybrook Farm.
  • The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Graham: So splendid a book. One of my favorites (I never read the IC) and I don’t think one is ever too old for it.
  • The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
  • A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens: Cuddle with your family and read the original all together on Christmas Eve (or the days leading up to Christmas, if you want to split it into manageable chunks).

So it doesn’t escape my notice that this whole post is a bit more of a rant than usual. But literature is something I feel passionately about. Great books are a rite of passage and they have so much to offer you when you’re old enough (and in the right frame of mind) to accept it. So many humans have read them for so many years- they’re an important part of our shared culture and history. The questions we ask ourselves and one another and that we’re all trying to answer in one way or another.
I waited too long to read a lot of these books because I had already experienced them in this other (*cough* lesser *cough*) form. Some of them I waited too long for entirely. I feel upset that these classics are given short shrift and their sparkle is dulled. Their essence drained. I feel sad that so many deserving children’s books are ignored as children read shallower replacements.
And it points to a disturbing idea- that one needs to read and enjoy the classics, even if one isn’t in the right place for them; mentally, temporally, emotionally… If you don’t enjoy classics, there isn’t anything wrong with that. But there are so many other books waiting to be discovered…

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