Classic novels as baby board books: Sophisticated or silly?

Classic novels in board book form – brought to you by author Suzanne Gibbs Smith's BabyLit series of board books – probably make a bigger dent in parent-boredom than in toddler pre-pre-pre-Ivy League readiness.

BabyLit.com screenshot
Children's book author Suzanne Gibbs Taylor introduces classic literature to toddlers in BabyLit, a series of board books inspired by such classics as 'Anna Karenina,' 'The Jabberwocky,' and 'Romeo and Juliet.'

The New York Times, in an article almost certainly painstakingly designed to set off a tizzy of online clucking and hand-wringing, has presented the newest in precious parenting trends: board books for teething babies that reprise important works of classic literature and evoke a pre-pre-pre-Ivy League appreciation for classic art.

The Times says that they include: "... classics like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Les Misérables”; luxuriously produced counting primers with complex graphic elements; and even an “Art for Baby” book featuring images by the contemporary artists Damien Hirst and Paul Morrison."

The obvious reaction to this trend is to roll one's eyes and go back to reading "Five Fluffy Alpacas" once again. This would be counterproductive for a number of reasons, not least of which that the challenging subject material is likely to be entertaining to the parents and start a general expectation that kids will rise to more rarefied educational topics from time to time. Our fear of going above our kids' heads sometimes leads us to provide nothing that they can reach up to; see, for example, this analysis of a federal survey of students. It depicts a vast number of children in America who feel under-, rather than over-challenged by their work.

The heart of The New York Times board books story may lie in its closing quote from author and mother Cindy Hudson. While she doubts that kids will benefit from the prep school subject matter, she does suggest: "anything that encourages that interaction between babies and parents is a good thing. That’s where the learning and the bonding comes from.”

In other words: If you're more stimulated by reading a board book version of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" than "Pat The Soft Ducky" or "Everybody Spits Up," then there's a good chance that your children will be more stimulated, too.

Of course, the whole discussion prompts consideration of what our own favorite classics might be like if rendered as board books and read to curious, impressionable children:

Kafka's "Metamorphosis:" "Well, no, we don't know how he turned into a bug – that's sort of beside the point ... well, no, he didn't drink a potion. I mean, he might have. Sure, he drank a potion."

Dante's "Inferno:" "Oh, no, don't worry, you're not going to end up being chewed upon by one of Satan's three giant mouths ... unless of course you don't clean up your toys every night."

Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago:" "Well, yeah, I think some of them get out. Actually, sure, everybody gets out. It's just a tough time but they all stick together and get through it. You know what, let's just read 'Metamorphosis' again."

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