Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 12:03 am by M. in , , ,    4 comments
We are very grateful to Real Reads for sending us two review copies of the following books.
Wuthering Heights
by Gill Tavner
Vanessa Lubach (Illustrator)

# Paperback: 64 pages
# Publisher: Real Reads (30 Jul 2009)
# ISBN-10: 190623020X
# ISBN-13: 978-1906230203
Jane Eyre
by Gill Tavner
Vanessa Lubach (Illustrator)

# Paperback: 64 pages
# Publisher: Real Reads (30 Jul 2009)
# ISBN-10: 1906230218
# ISBN-13: 978-1906230210

What's the best way to introduce children to classic literature? This is a recurring topic which each generation resurfaces and one which inevitably generates confronted positions. Is it better to quote from the original without adapting? Is an abridged version which reshapes the original language to each new group of potential readers most advisable? Is it better to completely modernise the settings and situations? Or maybe a visual approach (via comic or with illustrations à la page) can be more successful? In recent years we have seen examples of all these approaches(1) some of them more accomplished than others but all of them sharing a common goal: bringing the classics to future readers.

The Real Reads collection is one more of these attempts. It consists in brief illustrated retellings (some 50 pages and 20 illustrations plus the cover in a dustjacket, addressed to children 8-13 years old) of widely known English classics by Jane Austen(2), Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and, of course, the Brontë sisters among others. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights are unsurprisingly the choices. Each Real Read contains the following sections: The Characters with a brief summary of each character and an appropriate illustration, The Story were the illustrated retelling can be read and a final section: Taking the Things Further where a call to read the real thing is made, Filling the Void highlights the main points of the original narrative that have been skipped or altered, Back in Time briefly places the author and the book in its time, Finding out More suggests books, films or websites and Food for Thought offers prompts to start a discussion about the book.

Both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are retold by Gill Tavner and illustrated by Vanessa Lubach. Gill Tavner says on the RealReads website:
I have long thought that there must be a way of making the qualities of ‘classics’ accessible to most readers, but I was unconvinced that abridging was the answer. As a mother of two young children, I have endured the pain of reading abridged fairy tales and Disney films. These often machine-gun the reader with a list of events. Rarely do they offer the reader an opportunity to develop interest in or appreciation of varied vocabulary, style or themes. Do abridged versions need to be like this? Surely there is a way to make an abridged version an enjoyable and enriching rather than simply informative reading experience? Surely this is an important distinction if we aim to nurture keen, confident readers?
Surely. And Gill Tavner tries hard to retell the novels preserving some of the original language or structure. This is considerably better achieved in Jane Eyre than Wuthering Heights. The complicated structure of Emily Brontë's masterpiece is so inextricably weaved into to the novel itself than any attempt to alleviate it is doomed to fail. The machine-gun effect that Ms Tavner alludes to it in the aforementioned text is very hard to get around. Jane Eyre, however, stands the abridging/adapting process much better. The bare bones are there and some of the feeling of Charlotte Brontë's writing can be glimpsed. It is remarkable that Ms Tavner has managed to get Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfied, Moor House and Ferndean... in 50 pages! Of course, the pace is too fast and there's no psychological depth in the characters but this is the unavoidable price to pay in an approach such as this one.

Vanessa Lubach is in charge of the illustrations. This is not the first time she approaches these novels. Recently, she also created the list of Characters of the Worth Press editions (check our review here) and of course some of her previous creations have been recovered for the present editions. Only Rochester's depiction presents a clear change in tone(3). Helen Burns or Adèle Varens also present minor changes. Vanessa Lubach's drawings are in colour pencil with a watercolour underwash in many of her illustrations. This gives a naïf tone that works well with the children stages of both novels and not so well with the rest of it. A mention should be made, nevertheless, to the excellent first illustration of Wuthering Heights with Lockwood fighting in the snow to arrive to Wuthering Heights.

Concerning the final section, the constant reminding of the necessity of reading the original novel to be able to have the full experience is remarkable. The contextualising sections are just testimonial but even so it's unforgivable that Haworth is, once again, wrongly and consistently spelt Howarth and the bibliography and webs selected are highly improvable. There's a wide selection of possible Brontë biographies (fictionalised or not) available for children and, frankly, quoting the wikipedia as a possible visiting website is, to put it mildly, a bit poor. The Food for Thought section is hardly useful to teachers and educators but this seems to be on its way to being solved as some schemes of work for primary teachers have been released on their website. Not for the Brontë titles yet, but they promise more releases.

(1) You can check our section of reviews to see some of the titles: Classical Comics' Jane Eyre, Graffex Comic Adaptations of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for instance. And new ones are announced as the Classical Comics' Wuthering Heights or Jane Airhead by Kay Woodward.
(2) A very interesting interview with Gill Tavner about her Jane Austen Real Reads adaptations can be read on AustenProse.
(3) A softened version in this case, as the WorthPress characterisation was more in accordance to a Mary Shelley novel than a Charlotte Brontë one. It's also a good choice to obviate Bertha from the characters list as it will give too many clues to new Jane Eyre readers.

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  1. Thanks for the link. I enjoyed reading Gill Tavner's Jane Austen retellings. I think that these are fun for a very young reader, and may plant a seed to entice them to read the full novel when they are ready.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Hopefully they will, yes. And as long as they achieve that - with a sort of good quality to it - we are quite glad.

  3. Just quick thanks for what I consider a very fair review of both books. As I think is evident in the resulting work, Wuthering Heights was by far the more difficult of the two.
    Sincere apologies for the Haworth error - I agree - unforgivable, and I hang my head in shame - particulary as I visited several times during my undergraduate years at York Uni. It will be corrected upon reprint.
    Thanks too for mentioning the other books.

  4. Dear Gill,

    Many thanks for stopping by and sorry for not replying to your comment sooner.

    Wuthering Heights is clearly much more difficult to adapt to any other format whatsoever, so that should always be taken into account.

    We are glad to hear the Haworth error will be corrected!