Monsters-R-Us: Adapting Gothic Classics for Children
By A.H. Hill
Baby’s Classics Frankenstein (Starry Forest, 2021) and Dracula (Starry Forest, 2021) were a delight to write (and edit!) These titles started off as a joke. Robert Agis, the president of Starry Forest, and I sometimes laugh about Starry Forest’s penchant for taking absurdly complex topics and “baby-fying” them. I joked that our next Baby’s Classics (illustrated by the superb Greg Paprocki) should be War and Peace. Or Frankenstein—for gothic-loving babies!
We laughed, but later I wondered why exactly it was so funny. Of course, there’s the contrast of baby-like sweetness with the dark monsters of gothic novels. That is funny. But surely all the best stories can transcend labels like “kids’ books” or “classics” or “adult fiction”—even the gothic novel.
Madeleine L’Engle once quipped, “[I]f the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” What’s more complicated than a gothic classic? This is a genre in which humanity comes to terms with the great wide world, the complexities and mysteries of the human body, the epic battle of man vs. nature.
Consider Frankenstein (1818): who understands what it’s like to be newly-gifted a weird, uncoordinated body better than a toddler? They are learning words, motions, and social cues just like Frankenstein’s monster. Their parents are often just as inscrutable as Dr. Frankenstein is to his child.
What about Dracula (1897)? We can wax about the grandiosity of far-away places, the bounds of (im)mortality, progress vs. tradition, or the thin line between the giving and taking of life. But is Dracula really all that different from a toddler who just wants a cookie? Right now? Yes before dinner? Especially since you said “no”? Sure, I guess wanting an illicit cookie is less sinister than craving the blood of your realtor, but the lack of impulse control is the same.
In the end, I hope readers of these little adaptations recognize the same thing as readers of the big classics: our monsters are often ourselves. And we should show them some compassion.
(Also, it’s rude to bite people.)
The illustrator Greg and I worked together to hide lots of little Easter Egg-style nods to the original classics in the art of both Baby’s Classics Frankenstein and Dracula! Read on to learn more.
A Little Bit of Lightning
Frankenstein’s monster comes to life when the doctor figures out how to channel lightning into his experiment. It’s a little bit “lightbulb moment” (literally), a little bit “divine spark.” See Dr. Frankenstein’s notes? Eureka, I do believe he’s got it!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) partly inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. An albatross is generally an omen of good luck. But, in the poem, the mariner shoots the albatross, cursing the ship. As punishment, the mariner has to wear the dead albatross around his neck. This is how the albatross came to be a good omen, a bad omen, and a symbol of carrying a burden.
Has a single symbol ever summed up a novel better? (Quiet, green light from The Great Gatsby (1925), I wasn’t talking to you.) Have you ever heard anything quite so…gothic? Don’t mess with nature, everyone. And maybe also don’t stuff an albatross and keep it on your shelf above your unholy experiments, which is what Dr. Frankenstein has done in Paprocki’s depiction of his lab.
The Gothic Landscape
Greg and I talked a lot about the feel of a gothic novel when working on the art for both books. Victorians were obsessed with nature. They were even more obsessed with far-away, foreign-feeling nature. It was all danger and darkness, tall pine forests and deep cold lakes, dramatic peaked mountains and craggy cliffs. Nothing made readers feel more small, more helpless, more human, than a gothic landscape.
Dr. Frankenstein’s House
Much like Lord Byron’s poetry, the weather that summer was incessantly dramatic. On a particularly rainy day, Byron proposed a competition to see who could write the best ghost story. Mary won with Frankenstein.
We decided it was not a coincidence that Dr. Frankenstein runs away to a house on a lake in Switzerland in the novel. Do you recognize it?
“Your Friend, Dracula”
This sounds like a line that’s made up for little readers, but it’s straight from the original book. Count Dracula had never met Jonathan before sending him this letter and signing it “Your friend.” It’s really kind of endearing. Maybe all along he was just acting out because he wanted some friends….
Did you know that “Dracula” means “dragon”?
Well, technically it means “son of Dracul”—Dracul being the vampire’s father. And Romanian “Drac” can mean either “devil” or “dragon” … but close enough!
No matter the word or story version, the Count has always been a little obsessed with his lineage. How many dragons can you find in the book?
When readers think of critters in Dracula, they think of bats. But the original novel is filled with wolves! Their howls and prowls lend to the gothic feel of the classic novel, and they sometimes act as Dracula’s familiars. Novel Dracula famously says, “Children of the night, what music they make!”
The London Library
The library setting below is based off of old photographs of the London Library. The London Library was where Bram Stoker did all of his original research for Dracula. In fact, they just discovered a whole set of books personally defaced by Stoker while he was working. Exciting!
That bust is based on a real bust of Alfred Lord Tennyson. He was president of the London Library at the time. Is the bust in the library in real life? No—but it is in a museum about 15 minutes away. Hopefully, this is a case where it’s the thought that counts!
For budding botanists, those are garlic flowers in the painting above Mina and Jonathan’s bed. Good choice!
Girl Power (Finally)
When you think of women in Dracula, what comes to mind? I bet it’s not a sassy, clever, Victorian Nancy Drew-esque lady. Mina is by far the cleverest character in the book. She’s the one who really solves the mystery and instigates the second half of the adventure. Mina, Starry Forest is adamant that you finally get some credit!
Adapting classics for children—especially from a genre as deeply layered as the gothic canon!—provides countless opportunities for enriching illustrations that call back to the original work and to a story’s cultural context, both past and present. As you can see, illustrations play an important role in bringing these beloved stories to life in new ways, for new readers! Frankenstein, the next installment in our adorable Baby’s Classics series, is available now. Dracula will debut on March 8, 2022, just in time for the 125th anniversary year of Stoker’s classic! We hope you fall as in love with these tales as we have.
Text and images are courtesy of A. H. Hill, Greg Paprocki, and Starry Forest Books and may not be used without expressed written consent.