Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Boxcar Children: Graphic Novels

I've written before about graphic novels for reluctant readers. My kids' school was offering a book order specifically for graphic novels, and I thought it was OK. My kids like reading comics, but they also read regular books at and above their grade levels.

Today, they went to the library and brought home a couple of graphic novels of the Boxcar Children books.

My reaction was mixed. I do recognize that graphic novels work for some kids. I also think there's some value in simplifying classics and harder works of literature. If kids read the graphic novel versions of Shakespeare now, maybe they'll be more interested in reading the real thing (or seeing the plays) later on.

However, the Boxcar Children books are already easy. Here's part of the note about author Gertrude Chandler Warner:

"As a teacher, she discovered that many readers who liked an exciting story could not find books that were both easy and fun to read. She decided to try to meet this need."

Well, I believe in having informed opinions, so I decided to read the books the girls brought home. These two are versions of original Gertrude Chandler Warner books (she wrote only the first 19 in the series): The Bicycle Mystery and The Lighthouse Mystery. Most of the graphic novels published so far are versions of Warner's books. They're adapted by Joeming Dunn and illustrated by Ben Dunn.

I read each in about 5-10 minutes. The stories are condensed down to the basic plot elements. Since the Boxcar Children books don't have complex plots, this doesn't leave much. I felt like all of the charm of the original books was missing.

So what is the charm of the books? Some people suggest that it lies in being able to imagine what everything looks like. I don't think think that's the case.

You see, the Boxcar Children books are about independence. They're about Benny, Violet, Henry and Jessie doing things and solving problems on their own, without a lot of adult interference (other than often supplying money and material things). I loved reading about how they did things: how did they prepare for a bicycling or canoeing trip? What supplies did they need? How did they set up camp? What did they cook for dinner, and where did they get the food?

The stories usually involved solving a mystery, but it was the journey that was important, and that's what is left out of the graphic novels.

As for the drawings, they're OK. They depict an odd mix of objects from different time periods -- a 1950s station wagon, an older-looking sports car with a modern-day California license plate, simple shorts and t-shirts for the kids (including girls), women in 1950s-style dresses, basic, non-descript bikes, bike helmets worn at all times. Each of the two books I have on hand includes one or two panes drawn in silhouette, which I'm guessing is an homage to the original illustrations.

I do feel nostalgia for the original books and original illustrations. But nostalgia aside, since the original books are already so accessible, and far superior, I don't see a need for the graphic novels.