In the latest in the Beyond the Secret Garden series, which looks at the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic voices in British children’s literature, Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor examine abridgements made when books are revised for younger readers.
In 1800, an edition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, originally published in 1719, was published as a chapbook. The publishers noted that the story was so well-known, they didn’t need to tell it; instead, ‘only the illustrations are shown’, eight woodcut highlights from Defoe’s lengthy novel, including one captioned ‘Advent of Friday’ and another, ‘Arrival of Savages with Christian Prisoner’. For many young readers, the stick-figure naked Black people, mostly without facial features, contrasted with clothed white people with facial expressions (and guns) were the first depictions they saw of people of colour in books. By creating illustrated editions of books for older readers and adults, publishers could increase their profits by selling the same story multiple times. But these editions, because they are shortened, often also relied on shorthand stereotypes (‘savages’ for example, and the nakedness of the Black figures) to convey information quickly. Abridged and adapted books can ensure a book has a greater cultural presence. There is, we think, an interesting question of whether books that are simplified for children distort the original text in some way, or actually bring important aspects of it more sharply into focus.
New editions of books that are designed to appeal to younger readers remain popular and may even be experiencing a resurgence of late. Recent examples of books revised for younger readers include a number of memoirs and autobiographies. Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (Little, Brown,1994), was followed in 2014 by Macmillan’s children’s edition, abridged by Chris Van Wyk and illustrated by Paddy Bouma. The 2014 teen edition of I am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2013) was written by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick and given the new, and more upbeat, title of I am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World. Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Morrow, 2016) by Margot Lee Shetterly was followed by Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, a 2018 picture book by Margot Lee Shetterly with Winifred Conkling, illustrated by Laura Freeman. Freeman won the Coretta Scott King Illustration Honor for her work on the book. Both Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime (2016) and Michelle Obama’s Becoming (2018) have also been published in abridged editions aimed at younger readers.
A number of books that offer fresh perspectives on the world have also been published as editions for younger readers. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books 2016) by Ibram X Kendi was followed by Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You – described as ‘a remix’ – by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi and Stamped (for Kids) by the same authors in 2021. Winner of the 2015 American Book Award, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States written by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reece for a younger audience in 2019. Prisoners of Geography (2015) by Tim Marshall was followed in 2019 by a fully illustrated version by Grace Easton and Jessica Smith, adapted with Emily Hawkins and Pippa Crane. The section on Africa entitled ‘Carving Up A Continent’ (p48) offers some brief historical information to complexify the book’s broader theme that the wealth of a continent is largely dependent on its physical geography. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015) was followed by a large version illustrated by Neil Packer (2018). Frankopan offers a considerably less Eurocentric history of the world than many young readers will have encountered in their reading and school curricula.
It is instructive to examine what is left in, what is added (usually, though not always, in terms of illustration), and what is changed or removed in editions for younger readers. One of the most obvious recent examples of this is David Olusoga’s Black and British, first published by Macmillan in 2016 as a nearly 600-page history aimed at adults, and in the last year published in two new editions: one, a standard-sized children’s paperback for ages twelve and over, published in 2020; and in November 2021, an illustrated version aimed (according to the website) at ages six to eight. All three editions (including the adult edition) are illustrated with maps, photographs, and reproductions of paintings, but the book for older children has only black-and-white illustrations, which is presumably a cost issue (there is a ten pound difference in price between the older and younger children’s editions). The lower price might mean that readers would choose the book themselves, rather than having it purchased for them, making it more likely that they might read it. But the illustrations in Olusoga’s book for younger readers by Jake Alexander and Melleny Taylor are so bright and appealing that many twelve-year-olds might be attracted by it too. This would not be a disaster by any means – Olusoga includes most of the same topics in both books (although considerably shortened in the illustrated version). But one example of the omissions between the editions suggests the material deemed inappropriate for younger readers: the discussion of the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 and the debate that ensued in Britain over the right way for Britain to govern colonial people is well-covered in the older readers’ version, but not mentioned in the illustrated version. All three versions focus heavily on the Stuart and Georgian periods, which – although not typically part of the school history curriculum – are critical for Olusoga because Britain’s expanding involvement in colonialism and the enslavement of Africans built up wealth and global standing which still benefit Britain today. All of these books provide an excellent starting point for understanding how Britain’s history was shaped by Black people.
One part of that history is, of course, the Windrush generation. Floella Benjamin, whose family came from Trinidad in the 1960s and who is now a baroness in the House of Lords, wrote a version of her life story, Coming to England, in 1995 for a middle grade (key stage two) audience. Twenty-five years later, and after a successful television adaptation, Benjamin rewrote her story for a picture book audience with illustrations by Diane Ewen. The two versions are very different, and not just in terms of length, reading level, and number of pictures. The descriptive blurb on the Puffin paperback version from 1997 positions it as a story of overcoming adversity: ‘Floella was shocked and upset by the taunting and rejection she faced. She soon realized that the only way to survive was to be twice as good as anyone else.’ But the picture book version is described as ‘An inspiring true story celebrating the Windrush generation’ on the front cover of the book. These descriptions accurately delineate the difference between them. The novel version includes much more direct depictions of racism when ‘boys came up and spat strange words at me, words I had never heard before but from their faces I knew they were not nice’ (p81). In the picture book version, white children ‘called us names’ (n.p.) but on the very next page ‘after a while, we became friends’ (n.p.). Conquering racism is a much simpler task in the picture book version. Additionally, the picture book version focuses throughout on the idea of Floella meeting the queen, a childhood desire which is eventually fulfilled. The novel, on the other hand, contains much more about the things that Floella and her family had to change or accept in Britain: Benjamin describes discarding her Trinidadian accent for ‘the Queen’s English’ in order ‘to get the best education’ (p101). She also discusses people from the Caribbean opening their own churches because white people made them feel unwelcome, and having to pay high prices for foods from the Caribbean. None of this is in the picture book version, which leaves the Caribbean food in the Caribbean section of the book, and never mentions patois at all.
We see that in revising editions for younger readers writers and publishers make decisions not only about the language used and the level of detail required, but also about the balance between social reality and hopefulness, between safety and initiation into the wider world. As ever, both commercial and educational interests are likely to inform their decisions.
Karen Sands-O’Connor is the British Academy Global Professor for Children’s Literature at Newcastle University. Her books include Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).
Darren Chetty is a teacher, doctoral researcher and writer with research interests in education, philosophy, racism, children’s literature and hip hop culture. He is a contributor to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and the author, with Jeffrey Boakye, of What Is Masculinity? Why Does It Matter? And Other Big Questions. He tweets at @rapclassroom.
The Surprising Life and most Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe Of the City of York, Mariner (ca.1800) as featured in John Ashton’s Chap-books of the Eighteenth Century (1882).
Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela, abridged by Chris Van Wyk, illustrated by Paddy Bouma. Macmillan. 2014.
I am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick. Orion. 2015.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race – Margot Lee Shetterly with Winifred Conkling, illustrated by Laura Freeman. Harper Collins. 2018.
It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime, Stories from a South African Childhood – Trevor Noah. John Murray. 2019.
Becoming: Adapted for Younger Readers – Michelle Obama. Puffin. 2021
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning – Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi. Little, Brown. 2020
Stamped (for Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You – Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi. Little Brown. 2021
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States For Young People written by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reece. Beacon Press. 2019.
Prisoners of Geography: Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps Tim Marshall illustrated by Grace Easton and Jessica Smith, adapted with Emily Hawkins and Pippa Crane.
Elliott and Thompson. 2019
The Silk Roads: The Extraordinary History that Created Your World. Peter Frankopan, illustrated by Neil Packer. Bloomsbury Children’s Books. 2018.
Black and British: A Short Essential History David Olusoga. MacMillan. 2020
Black and British: An Illustrated History David Olusoga, illustrated by Jake Alexander and Melleny Taylor. Macmillan. 2021
Coming to England: An Autobiography – Floella Benjamin. Walker. 1995.
Coming to England : An Inspiring True Story Celebrating the Windrush Generation Floella Benjamin, illustrated by Diane Ewen. Macmillan. 2021