“Dumbing Down”: Why Children’s Books are Being Simplified And What This Means for All of Us

By John E. Mitchell

Consider these sentences:
“There was once upon a time . . .
‘A king!’ my little readers will shout together.
No, children you make a mistake.  Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.”

– beginning of Pinocchio, 1882

“There was once a poor woodcarver named Geppetto who made fantastic clocks and music boxes and every kind of toy you can imagine, each one a work of art.”
– also the beginning of Pinocchio, 1978

The latter, less playful words belong to a Walt Disney book adaptation of the movie, Pinocchio, which is itself an adaptation of a novel published in Italy in 1882. The movie, released in 1940 and followed by decades of related paraphernalia, ensured that the puppet Pinocchio would be legendary in the world of children’s fiction – not as Italian writer Carlo Collodi’s greatest creation, but as another notch in Mickey Mouse’s magic wand.

This process of simplifying – and popularizing – classic children’s literature has been called “dumbing down.” The term was mentioned most recently in regard to the wildly popular Harry Potter books, in which American publishers replaced certain British terms with Americanized equivalents, so as not to trouble the apparently easily confused American reader.

Is children’s literature being dumbed down? The answer isn’t always clear, but the evidence that something is happening lies on store shelves around the country.
“They have these My First Little House on the Prairie books,” laments author/illustrator and Emerson College Writer-In-Residence Lisa Jahn-Clough. “And that’s ridiculous because that is rewriting them and trying to introduce them at an earlier age, and I think that takes away from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.”

Plenty of similar works, including William Joyce’s Santa Calls, have received the abridged board-book treatment. Most Richard Scarry books are routinely abridged, cut and pasted, rewritten and redrawn. Margaret Wise Brown’s Color Kittens has been redrawn and edited in recent editions. When you add to this the proliferation of substandard original works, especially in the Young Adults market where Goosebumps and Sweet Valley High sell serialized fourth-grade reading levels to teens, along with countless media tie-ins – thank goodness that all they’re doing to Harry Potter is changing Briticisms.

Marketing’s Powerful Role

Prior to the 1980s, the children’s book market was largely institutional. Libraries were well-funded and a great source for the material, since the buyers were literature experts. But in the 1970s, dollars once earmarked for libraries began to be put into block grants; libraries lost some of their funding and as the institutional market declined, the consumer market rose. Advertising became more important, putting the real power behind the availability of quality children’s books in the hands of marketing and sales professionals.

“The marketing and sales people run a lot of publishing these days,” says Jahn-Clough. “They really want to do what sells.”

Mary Brigid Barrett, a children’s book author and illustrator and co-founder of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, agrees.

“Publishing companies have something called a publishing committee,” Barrett says. “It used to be that these were editorially dominated, but in some companies, you will have an equal vote to the marketing representation as to the editorial. Not only that, but a lot of editors are coming up not through the traditional English literature background, but from marketing.”

She also contends that a publishing career doesn’t necessarily bring a high level of income, and publishing companies tend to draw inexperienced workers.
“In the whole world of marketing, at many publishers, you’re getting inexperienced marketing people making those decisions.”

Barrett is quick not to lay all of the blame on marketing directors. She believes we’re all responsible in some way for the “dumbing down” phenomenon. “To blame Hollywood, to blame the publisher, to blame the television companies – you know what? They wouldn’t do that if people weren’t buying it! Can you imagine what would happen if American parents decided to take responsibility for what was being read to their kids?”

The Educated Consumer
An uninformed public feeds into the marketers’ actions, Barrett contends, and little can change until the market is populated primarily by educated consumers.
“What happens is that most books are not sold in Barnes and Noble – they’re sold in Wal-Mart,” she says. “And most parents don’t understand the difference between trade books and mass market books. Most parents don’t understand that when they do go into a bookstore, all those books that are face-out are paid advertising from the publishing companies; they are promoting the books they want to sell, not necessarily the best books on their list. There is also a tendency for people to buy what’s familiar.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard for a children’s book consumer to become educated. Parenting magazines don’t usually offer an in-depth look at children’s books, while obscure literature journals, such as The Horn Book, tend to review on an academic level. If a newspaper offers children’s book coverage at all, it’s buried in the book section, available and obvious to people who would have sought out this information anyway.

Few, if any, review outlets speak to parents on their own level, which perpetuates an uneducated-consumer-driven market. Advertising divisions direct the consumer toward the familiar, regardless of quality, to make a quick sell.

“There are approximately 4,000 to 5,000 trade books published for youth each year,” estimates Janice M. Del Negro, editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books at the University of Illinois. “Optimistically, I’d say we can skim off the top and have, say, 500 fair-to-fabulous titles a year.”

Changed Expectations
Despite the seemingly dire state of today’s children’s books, one viewpoint asserts that things are no worse than they’ve ever been. After all, there have always been shoddy children’s books, cheap media tie-ins and vapid serials. Natalie Babbitt, author of such books as Tuck Everlasting and The Devil’s Storybook, believes we need to look at the larger picture.

“Trash isn’t new to children’s books at all,” Babbitt muses. “We had plenty of trash in the ’30s and ’40s. The good things were there, too, and they still are for people who want them.”

To Babbitt, the push for literacy and the demands on the medium have changed, not the books themselves.

“I think the main thing that has changed is our expectations. When I went to elementary school, nobody thought that everyone should be a reader. But now, somehow we think everybody should read, everybody should love to read, everybody should be good at it. And that is noble and wonderful, and how terrific if it could really be that way. But I think it is probably impossible.”

Scholastic Inc., publisher of the Americanized Harry Potter books and a series of simplified children’s classics, believes it is helping make the demands for a literate America a reality.

“It’s not dumbing down the classics as much as providing a rich story line to kids who can’t read them yet,” says Patrick Daley, publisher of Scholastic’s intervention curriculum, which uses classics to reach struggling readers in grades four through eight. “As these children improve their reading skills, they’ll revisit these books.”
Through their book series, which uses graphics to illustrate classic stories, Scholastic tries to close the gaps in culture and literature that reading difficulties can create. “I know the plot of Frankenstein and that Moby Dick was a giant whale,” Daley says. “But if we can make these great stories accessible to kids, we can prepare them for tackling the full stories when their reading levels are ready.”

Stiff Competition

Will children even try to tackle the full stories later in life, especially with mind-strainers like Moby Dick or Frankenstein? Both are classic movies, which make the story lines more accessible and more popular than the dense, adult books. The idea that there are still plenty of good books – including original versions of Moby Dick or Frankenstein  – available in bookstores and libraries is undeniable. But equally undeniable is the engulfing power of the movie industry, which imposes itself on children’s markets more and more, resulting in a higher incidence of mediocrity within the children’s publishing industry.

“I think we are seeing more media tie-ins today,” says Del Negro, “because there are a lot more television shows, movies, and videos based on children’s books than there ever have been in the past, and because they sell. I’d say the harm comes in believing that if you’ve read the media-tie-in or the dumbed-down version, you’ve read the book.”

Movies and media tie-ins worry many creators. Witness the recent Stuart Little movie, which produced easy-reader books of the movie’s story, thus introducing to young readers a splashy, simplified written-word version of a movie that barely resembles E.B. White’s multi-faceted book. Next year’s Stuart Little 2 won’t help the situation any.

Babbitt complains that Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast cheats viewers who haven’t read the story. She says that Disney has “simplified and coyed it up and cuted it up to the point where the whole magnificent darkness of that story is lost. I think that’s a tragedy.”

The biggest part of the tragedy is that in conjunction with the movie, Disney publishes several different storybook versions of their films, usually overshadowing the source material. Winnie the Pooh might be Disney’s greatest triumph in this regard. Years of marketing, redrawn storybooks, computer games, and TV shows have successfully supplanted A.A. Milne’s sly, witty tales in the popular imagination.

Ironically, Babbitt is currently dealing with Disney on her own project.
“There’s about to be a movie made of Tuck Everlasting and it’s scary,” she says. “Some of the people I’ve talked to ‘on the Coast’ – their ideas about their audience are pretty scary, that they’re all deadheads so you have to make everything very simple.”

Hollywood’s disdain for the audience makes simple economic sense. Books cease to be the central products in this arrangement. They become mere marketing tools for selling the actual product – a film, television show or related merchandise. In the hands of multimedia powerhouses like Disney, the market can become so flooded that even good books fail to get noticed anymore, and the original words of writers like A.A. Milne are forgotten by the people of the 21st century.

What Parents Can Do

How can parents combat this influence of mass marketing? The first obvious solution is to opt out of the marketing culture and plunge into the wealth of old and new books for children that have nothing to do with this trend.

“Libraries are still very useful and supportive for children’s books in particular,” says Jahn-Clough. “Most children’s librarians are very involved in the field. There’s an almost underground movement in the children’s field, with teachers and librarians who are dedicated.”

Still, many believe it’s a shame that the creative and intellectual life of children is relegated to a grassroots movement. For Mary Brigid Barrett, the book may be the last battlefield for the creative survival of our nation.

“If a democracy is to survive,” she explains, “we need kids who can not only read and write, we also need kids who can think creatively and think critically. And the book and story are that last bastion of independent thinking.”

Parents also need to be proactive in teaching their kids not to be slaves to the market and to practice critical thinking:

Research children’s books as you would a car. Teach children to qualify entertainment as they would food.

Don’t stop reading aloud to your kids. “Many parents stop reading out loud to their child the year (he or she) becomes an independent reader,” explains Barrett. “Big mistake. If your main goal is to create a lifelong reader and get kids to enjoy stories, to be inspired by stories, to be able to think critically and creatively, the best way is to keep reading out loud to them – especially if you’re going to read above the level that the child is reading.” A child reading at third-grade level should be read aloud novels at middle-grade levels. A sixth grader should hear young adult books. Read one or two levels ahead, says Barrett, who rejects the idea that children won’t understand this more complex literature. “That’s another way we dumb down to kids. We expect them to not understand the concepts, the subject matter, the vocabulary, the structure of the story – but they do.”

Try to keep reading fun and enjoyable, not a task or obligation. The writers interviewed for this article spoke of cherished memories of adults – a parent, teacher or librarian – taking the time to read aloud, to present it as fun, not labor, and as an opportunity to set their minds in motion.

“Since they started using novels in school, what is getting lost is the notion that reading is fun,” says Babbitt. “It’s homework now. And there’s a lot of homework.”

Society’s push to read should not be so stressful, Babbit says. It should introduce children to the joys of the act. Those who have an instinctive love of reading will read. But those who don’t would be better served by not being made to feel that they must read and they must read a lot.

“You’re a child for such short period of time; you’re not going to get through everything, and there’s a lot of good stuff out there,” Babbitt says. “Even if you read all the time, you’re not going to get through them all before you are a teen-ager. But we all keep right on doing it anyway.”

In the meantime, parents should approach the topic of reading with both abandon and caution. And perhaps they should take this to heart:

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.”

This is the first sentence of Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting. If what happened to the beloved story of Pinocchio teaches us anything, it is that we should cling to Babbitt’s words tightly – so that they still belong to us once the movie has been released.

John E. Mitchell is a freelance writer in western Massachusetts.
November 2000

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