The Giver: The Gift Edition. By Lois Lowry. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Houghton Mifflin.$19.99.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By William Shakespeare. HarperTeen. $8.99.
Persuasion. By Jane Austen. HarperTeen. $8.99.
Emma. By Jane Austen. HarperTeen. $8.99.
Recasting literary classics for 21st-century teenage readers is a noble endeavor: it would be nice if books generally considered “great literature” would be read because they are considered interesting rather than because they are required in high-school and college courses. How to make the works appealing to today’s young readers, though, is by no means clear. The Giver has been a modern classic since its first appearance in 1993; its winning of the Newbery Award was scarcely a surprise. Because it is only 18 years old, it needs relatively little to make it intriguing and appealing to today’s young readers: its language still speaks clearly to them, its dystopian plot is easy to see and follow, and its eventual uplifting and hopeful message carries as much meaning now as it did when Lois Lowry first wrote it. Like so many other books for a preteen or teenage audience, this is about growing up – but there is nothing facile about Lowry’s story of regimentation, assigned roles and the tremendous losses that accompany gained knowledge: “He didn’t want the memories, didn’t want the honor, didn’t want the wisdom, didn’t want the pain. He wanted his childhood again, his scraped knees and ball games. …But the choice was not his.” The Giver is ultimately about choices that can and cannot be made – and about finding a way to choose when there seems no way to do so. This is a resonant theme, and one that withstands the occasional logical lapses of the story. The new “Gift Edition” of the book is handsomely bound and includes striking illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, who takes particular advantage of one of the Giver’s abilities: to see color when no one else can. Thus, some illustrations are in black-and-white, some are in color, and some have a tiny and very effective splash of color in what is otherwise black-and-white. Lowry’s 1994 Newbery acceptance speech is included at the end as a sort of postscript, and is really all the additional commentary the book requires – to the extent that it needs any at all.
Older works need more. New HarperTeen editions of classics by Shakespeare and Jane Austen attempt, somewhat dubiously, to interest modern young readers by including “extras” of various kinds at the end. The works themselves, though, are presented straight, without commentary or explanation, and since the authors’ language is not easy for most teens today, it is unlikely that these new oversize paperbacks will produce a sudden groundswell of interest. One can always hope, though; these three new editions all get (+++) ratings because of that hope.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream fares best in its new guise. Printed in large type and with plenty of white space on each page, the play is as easy to read in this format as its language will allow. And the “extras” really do add something extra here. Not all of them – not, for example, the rather lame six-question “What would you do in the name of love?” quiz. But on the plus side, this edition offers five short stories by members of the online teen writing community Inkpop (www.inkpop.com) – each reimagining one part of the play or another. The real value of these stories lies not in their writing (although that is generally good) but in the simple fact that they are by members of the same teenage audience at which this edition is targeted – that is, here are young people who have read the play, absorbed it, thought about it and created something new based on it. That may be enough to bring at least some new readers to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The remaining “extras” probably won’t: they are “10 Things You Didn’t Know about William Shakespeare” (one of which is that he was born in 1564 – which scarcely seems a little-known fact) and an excerpt from Romeo & Juliet that is, again, given in the original language and without explanatory material. True, footnotes and explanations can interfere with the flow of a work and the enjoyment of it; but given Shakespeare’s language, which is glorious to those who can follow it but can be nearly indecipherable to those who cannot, it would have been helpful to make at least some attempt to get today’s teen readers involved in one of the most frequently adapted and most amusingly enjoyable of all Shakespeare’s plays.
The language is, chronologically, much more modern in Jane Austen’s works, but the sensibilities of the author of Sense and Sensibility are, in their own way, more archaic than those of Shakespeare. Austen is going through a resurgence of popularity these days through various adaptations and reinterpretations, so it seems to make sense to bring out teen-oriented editions of some of her actual writing. Instead of Shakespeare’s speedily stagey pacing and constant confusion of identities, Austen provides slow-moving works that are emotionally charged (by Victorian standards) with questions of love and devotion. Persuasion is about an attempt to rekindle a romance that ended when Anne Elliot allowed her family to dissuade her from engagement to poverty-stricken Captain Wentworth even though the two were in love. Typical dialogue: “‘I am much obliged to you,’ was her answer, ‘but I am not going with them. The carriage would not accommodate so many. I walk: I prefer walking.’ ‘But it rains.’ ‘Oh! Very little. Nothing that I regard.’” The HarperTeen edition comes with the same six-question “love quiz” offered in the Shakespeare volume, plus “10 Things You Didn’t Know about Jane Austen” (she never married; she died at age 41; and so on). There is also an excerpt here from Emma, Austen’s famous story of a matchmaker who eventually makes her own match. And then the “extras” in the new edition of Emma include the same “10 Things” supplement plus an excerpt from Persuasion. The quiz in Emma, though, is different: “Have you found your match?” And it includes only five questions. Emma is nearly twice as long as Persuasion, and although more famous, may be more difficult for modern teens to read, simply because it does go on and on for nearly 600 pages. Again, the dialogue may be hard for today’s teens to relate to: “‘I am very sorry to hear, Miss Fairfax, of your being out this morning in the rain. Young ladies should take care of themselves. – Young ladies are delicate plants. They should take care of their health and their complexion. My dear, did you change your stockings?’ ‘Yes, sir, I did indeed; and I am much obliged by your kind solicitude about me.’” The recent upsurge of interest in Austen’s works has come about almost entirely because of such adaptations as the delightful 1995 film Clueless, which is loosely based on Emma. Reading Austen in her original language and at her original length is a taller order than enjoying reinterpretations of her plots and characters, and there is nothing in the HarperTeen editions to help modern readers adjust to the notions, language and pacing of novels from 19th-century England. It would be nice if these books did in fact cause more of today’s teens to develop an interest in Austen and Shakespeare, but the likelihood of that happening because of these volumes seems, unfortunately, slim.