In Defense of the Abridged Classics

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abridge

1:  to shorten by omission of words

without sacrifice of sense

http://www.merriam-webster.com

I have found that in many homeschool circles, the subject of abridged classic novels can be surprisingly controversial. Over and over again, I have witnessed unsuspecting homeschool moms politely ask for recommendations for an abridged version of nameanyclassicnovel. While this may seem like a simple, straightforward question, it will undoubtedly be met with a spectrum of responses, ranging from “I like this version, here’s a link” to “Shame!!It’s literary sacrilege to even think of altering a classic!” Now, instead of quickly procuring useful suggestions, this poor homeschooling mom is faced with a philosophical dilemma she didn’t even know existed!

On one end of the argument spectrum, are those who will tell you that classic novels need no altering, and that doing so will dumb down the material in such a way that the story is rendered useless. On the other end of the spectrum, you will find people who will use abridged classics as a means to bypass the original, more challenging work. As with most things in life, there is a happy medium to be found somewhere in this range of opinion.

Truth be told, I never gave too much thought to the argument until recently. This fall, my 6 year old daughter started reading simple chapter books. It was a really exciting time, because I had all sorts of Magic Tree House style books ready to go! However, before I knew it, she was ripping through Magic Tree House books in an hour or two – she was definitely ready for something more. The problem came when I began looking for books of quality, with appropriate content for a 6 year old. My daughter enjoyed Magic Treehouse, Nancy Clancy, and Amelia Bedelia, but I felt that the depth of stories was lacking, and I wanted more than anything to capitalize on her appetite for good books.

This is when I discovered the Classic Starts series. I happened to have a copy of the classic starts version of Anne of Green Gables, so I decided to give it to my daughter and see how it went. Well, in a few days, we were discussing Anne, her love of books, her unbelievable imagination, her bosom friend Diana Barry, and of course, the handsome yet sometimes irritating, Gilbert Blythe.  What precious memories I was making with my sweet 6 year old, connecting through our now shared love of a wonderful story!

Some will argue that if a child isn’t advanced enough to read a classic on their own, then you should either use the original as a read-aloud, or wait until the child can handle the original. While I certainly believe in the merits of read-aloud classics,  I also believe my daughter gained so much more from reading the abridged version on her own, and then discussing it with me. She felt very grown up reading a classic story on her own, she experienced the feeling of being wrapped up in a wonderful story with a variety of characters, and most importantly, she gained an incredible amount of reading confidence – so much so, that upon finishing Anne of Green Gables, she was immediately craving another wonderful book – what more could I ask for?!

I don’t believe she was ready to read the original, unabridged version on her own. Sure, I think she could have trudged through it, burdened by tiny print and too many details, and I think that would have killed the idea of classic stories for her. For me, the goal is not for my kids to have long lists of classics that they’ve read, a shelf full of literary trophies. My goal for my kids is that they learn to love books, plain and simple. I think it is nearly impossible to get wrapped up in a story, and fall in love with characters, when you are struggling through the text.

Instead, the abridged versions offer young, eager readers a sampling of beloved characters in far away times and places. This is something that popular, more modern, early chapter books simply do not accomplish

That having been said, let’s revisit the idea that thoughts on classic novels lie on a spectrum of opinion. While I enthusiastically welcome the idea of abridged novels in our home library, it is not, nor will it ever be, to the exclusion of the originals. I believe our young readers are best served when abridged classics are used as a stepping stone, or a companion, to the original work.

I know that reading The Odyssey in high school would have been infinitely more meaningful had I been exposed to a simpler version of the plot and characters beforehand. I know that my 11 year old son doesn’t cringe at the thought of reading the original version of Great Expectations, because he has been given a sample of the story through an abridged version, and found it to be both weird and intriguing, and he’s interested to know more. I know that because my 6 year old daughter has read the abridged version of Little Women, and come to know each of the sisters, that she will be better equipped to soak up all of Louisa May Alcott’s beautiful detail when she reads the original in just a few short years.

While I can appreciate genuine concern for the preservation of the classic novel, I encourage you to view high quality abridged classics as a cornerstone in your home library, rather than an insult to classic literature. Try a few on for size this summer – have your older kids read some abridged stories, choose their favorite, and then tackle the original. If your older and younger kids can agree on a story, have younger readers read the abridged version, while the older readers enjoy the original work – when everyone has finished, enjoy a family movie night! (In our house, this has worked wonderfully with Swiss Family Robinson, The Jungle Book, Anne of Green Gables, and Little Women so far!)

Most importantly, talk to your kids and find out which stories they didn’t love so much, and which ones grabbed their hearts and piqued their interest – because after all, a genuine love of good books is what this is all about!

 

~ Dominique

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4 thoughts on “In Defense of the Abridged Classics

  1. I love your perspective on this issue! I have to admit I fall more in line with the notion that classics should not be abridged, however, my 7 year old daughter has recently learned that she CAN read chapter books and has been devouring those early chapter books that are not quite the quality of book I wish she were reading. She still “needs” books with larger print and some pictures. I hadn’t considered offering her an abridged classic… do you have a recommendation of a particular publisher that is better than another? I’m curious to try this out now. Thank you!

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    • Thank you, Kim! I have found that I particularly love the ‘Classics Starts’ series. From everything my daughter has been able to tell me about what she’s read, I believe the Classics Starts books do a great job of maintaining the integrity of the story, and the heart of the characters. While the illustrations are limited, this print size is perfect for growing readers, and they are all a comfortable size for small hands.

      If you search Amazon or Rainbow Resource for “Classic Starts”, you will find a massive selection of great titles to choose from! If you are interested in grade leveling for each book, I recommend checking out https://www.perma-bound.com, as they list several different formats of leveling for every Classic Starts title you could think of. I hope you and your daughter find as much joy in these books as we have!

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  2. I think you’ve very cleverly stated your opinion here, and I’m inclined to agree with you. I don’t have kids (yet), but even though I personally can’t stand reading an abridged classic, I also would want to start my (future) kids on classics as soon as I could, and if that means that they get to read abridged versions, so be it. I love the fact that your 6 year old is already a full-fledged Anne fan. That just sounds AMAZING to me!

    Tarissa
    http://inthebookcase.blogspot.com/

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