When I read the press release, my jaw dropped.
“What happens,” it asked, “when the most complex literary form—the novel—is skillfully combined with the most simple—the baby board book?”
They can’t be serious, I thought. But they were. The Cozy Classics, by brothers Jack and Holman Wang, had already debuted with Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice, and now they were trumpeting the next two installments in their set: Les Misérables and War and Peace.
Les Misérables variously clocks in at 1,200-1,500 pages, unabridged; War and Peace, at 1,150-1,500 pages, ditto. Each of the Cozy Classics versions renders these behemoths in just 12 pages—and at just one word per page, that’s quite an abridgment. Tolstoy’s sweeping saga of the Napoleonic wars becomes: “soldier / friends / girl / dance / goodbye / hug / horse / boom! / hurt / sleep / snow / love.” Of course—that captures the book to a tee. College students everywhere can forget Cliff Notes and borrow their baby sister’s Cozy Classics.
Now it’s no secret that the board-book world is rotten with developmentally inappropriate titles, from picture books for preschoolers that are squashed into board form, frequently doing great violence to illustrations meant to spread over large expanses of paper and truncating texts awkwardly, to board books in form only. Two notable recent examples of the latter are Sundance Film Festival A-Z, by Todd Oldham, which celebrates such icons of the nursery as Werner Herzog and Quentin Tarantino, and Steampunk Alphabet, by Nathanael Iwata, which optimistically pitches itself to the “hipster parent.”
But it’s the breathtaking opportunism of the Cozy Classics that takes me aback, aiming as they do directly at the vitals of anxious parents. The press release uses the language of early childhood education to peddle its wares. The books “[teach] children more than the same old numbers and colors: from emotions (Moby Dick’s Ahab is ‘mad’!) to social strata (Les Misérables’ Jean Valjean is ‘poor’!), the titles explore a rich vocabulary of words and themes that can’t be found in other titles in the baby board book genre.”
Baloney. First, there are plenty of board books that focus on emotional literacy, and second, is it really possible to responsibly teach infants and toddlers about class divisions by showing them pictures of children in (very clean) rags? And most importantly, those “same old numbers and colors” are damn necessary as building blocks to numeracy and literacy.
It must be conceded that the pictures in the Cozy Classics are darling. Intricate felt dolls are dressed in period costume and posed against three-dimensional backdrops. Felt smoke issues from a cannon in War and Peace; Javert’s felt brows crease in a cuddly scowl in Les Misérables. But they can’t be anything but opaque to the children they are purportedly ushering into a love of the classics.
And I don’t think children are going to be harmed by exposure to the Cozy Classics, particularly if it’s done in the warm confines of a parent’s embrace. But any benefit they realize is from the embrace, not the hardly deathless prose that the Wangs’ books offer.
Parents who want to get their offspring started early on a rich literary life should pass on this snake oil and instead find truly developmentally appropriate books to share with their babies. Get them a beautiful edition of Mother Goose, supplement that with board books that meet children where they are, rather than trying to drag them into the seminar room.
Let babies be babies. Cuddle them, read to them, sing to them, talk to them. Start them with the real cozy classics, like “Hickory Dickory Dock,” and continue feeding them classics, like Freight Train and Make Way for Ducklings and Frog and Toad Are Friends and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 and Charlotte’s Web and….They’ve got a lifetime of classics ahead of them, all in good time.
Vicky Smith is the Children's and Teen Editor at Kirkus Reviews.