I admit to cheating a bit on this. Large parts of this post are recycled from two on my sadly neglected blog. I resort to such tricks because relocating to Switzerland is eating up a great deal of my time lately, and because I had long intended to update both posts anyway. Thanks for your indulgence.
How do you raise a Janeite? Read Austen to your children, of course! I actually did try to read Pride & Prejudice to my daughter, Eliza, when she was 6 months old, but it didn’t quite hold her attention. It was about that time I was so fortunate as to be given a review copy of Pride & Prejudice: A Counting Primer by Jennifer Adams (you can read my review at another well-known blog). Here was a way for me to at least introduce the characters and themes of Pride & Prejudice. Eliza seemed to like it, but I admit it was not a favorite book during her infancy (I’ll get back to Good Night Moon in a moment). Yet even early on she enjoyed pointing to the pictures and counting the images, and lately (she is now almost four) she has been taking it to school and reciting it from memory to her friends. The fact that it has maintained a fairly constant place in our regular rotation is pretty telling in and of itself. I think I can definitely count this as score one for the Janeite Mama!
It should come as no surprise that Eliza has seen my favorite Pride & Prejudice film, the 1995 version, several times. No small part in keeping her attention throughout this epic-length production has been the Little Miss Austen Pride & Prejudice Book and Play Set, which I gave her (me) for her second Christmas. So much fun! It comes in a pretty box that can be used as a ballroom for the figures when open. The set includes a copy of the board book and six “sheets” of play figures and sets. The pieces pop out of the sheets, sort of like a perforated paper dolls but made of a very sturdy board. Even at age two, Eliza could pop them all out without damaging them in the slightest (NOTE: it does come with an under 3/small parts/choking warning. Do supervise closely any children who might decide to eat the play set). She had so much fun being able to remove all the parts and set them up herself. These days she creates elaborate play scenarios amongst the various characters (marriage proposals abound). The pieces have held up great and are solid enough to pop back into their original places, like a puzzle, for easy storage (which means it’s small enough to come with us to Zurich – score two!).
Jennifer Adams has also published Sense & Sensibility: An Opposites Primer. The whimsical artwork is again by Alison Oliver (these two have collaborated on an entire Baby-Lit series), and the book is in many ways excellent. Along with the Pride & Prejudice primer, the duo would make a fabulous shower gift for the expectant Janeite. Opposites seem the perfect theme for a Sense & Sensibility board book, and I especially enjoy the big/little juxtaposition between Norland Park and Barton Cottage. Unfortunately, like so many, my daughter seems to consider Pride & Prejudice the only one of Austen’s novels of any interest. I hope to rectify this with time. (Score = eh?)
She does enjoy the Cozy Classics version of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice by Jack and Holman Wang. This book features photos of felt dolls representing chronologically key scenes from the novel. The dolls are adorable (dare I say cozy?), and I like the fact that the basic plot line is represented. Each image is accompanied by a single word (very nice now that my daughter is starting to read). My favorite is “muddy”, which narrates a picture of Elizabeth running through a field, skirts six inches deep in mud. The same authors have also published Jane Austen’s Emma, featuring a mischievously winking Emma doll. Again, It’s not Pride & Prejudice, and so Eliza is just not that interested, though she does seem to have an imaginary friend named Emma … no idea if they’re connected. (Score three – A Janeite is a Janeite, no matter how crazy)
Last year all the buzz was about Goodnight Mr. Darcy by Kate Coombs, so of course I had to buy a copy. As previously intimated, Goodnight Moon, which this book parodies, was a favorite during Eliza’s infancy. Sadly, even with the name Mr. Darcy in the title, she still doesn’t have a whole lot of interest in this book. I think the problem might be that she considers herself just a bit too mature for it at the ripe old age of almost four, but I enjoy it even without her participation. I have a notion the book will have increased appeal as she continues to grow. Though cloaked in the imagery of her youth, this story is actually a great deal more complex than the others mentioned thus far. It even almost incorporates a complete plot line. Future prospects being notoriously fickle, there will be no point awarded this round.
I have found only one other Austen adaptation for young children, and I think it is the best of the bunch. The book is virtually unknown, but I would highly recommend it to both children and adults. It is The Beautifull Cassandra, illustrated by Juliet McMaster. First of all, The Beautifull Cassandra is one of my favorite pieces of Austen’s Juvenilia (you can read my discussion/review and the full text of it at my blog), and the story is represented in its entirety, complete with Austen’s dedication. McMaster provides an afterword which is perfect to introduce a youngster to who Jane Austen was and why she is important. The book presents Cassandra as a mouse in an appropriately dashing bonnet (my daughter LOVES the hat!). All the other characters are also animals: the pastry cook looks to be a hamster, the coachman a frog (who also looks great in the bonnet!), Maria is a squirrel, and the widow is a cat (strange friendship). Eliza and I talk about how Cassandra is said to be amiable but she is really a very naughty little mouse, which I believe is introducing her to the notion of sarcastic humor. What more could one wish for their child to imbibe from Austen? I cannot praise this book highly enough. (Score four!)
So there you have it: a complete overview of my arsenal of Austen for children. This is my first line of attack in raising a Janeite, and so far things are going pretty well. Four out of five seems respectable, and even as I write this, my daughter and husband are watching Pride & Prejudice without me downstairs. Now how do I convince Eliza to pretend she is Elizabeth instead of Lydia?
A note to my fellow Austen Authors: Don’t you think there should be more Austen-based picture books on the market? I know some of you can draw. Just saying.