Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Classics Both Revisited and Reimagined

Normally, this time of year is when Julie and I celebrate our anniversary by taking some kind of a road trip. Most of these trips eventually get written up as bookscouting columns because, well, that’s what we do when we travel. But what with the global pandemic and other medical woes closer to home, to say nothing of the fact that most of our small-town bookstore and thrift-shop destinations are still closed for who knows how long (sadly, some have gone out of business altogether) …anyway, given all that, a trip seemed not only foolhardy but likely to be actually depressing, as well.

So instead, we opted to loaf around and watch some of the long-form TV we’ve been meaning to get around to for a while. The one we decided to roll this weekend was the 2012 Treasure Island miniseries with Eddie Izzard as Long John Silver.

I’d stumbled across this completely by accident; had no idea it even existed. I’ve always been fond of Stevenson’s novel, certainly, though I hadn’t read it in decades. Julie had forgotten most of the plot but she had fond memories of the story as well– she has a soft spot for the Disney version, I think– and so we streamed it yesterday.

As it turns out, we really enjoyed it. This adaptation takes some liberties with the original, but honestly I think the changes are good ones. The only one I took mild exception to was that this version isn’t told from the viewpoint of young Jim Hawkins, but rather is structured as more of an ensemble piece with multiple character arcs.

It still works, and Jim is still the hero; in fact it’s even more of a coming-of-age story for him here than the original novel was, and both Julie and I approved of the new resolution this mini-series provided for Jim (though it kind of drops the ball when we don’t see the return to Bristol, considering what they set up for it.) Still very much recommended, though, with the caveat that it’s not for purists. The cast really digs deep, especially Eddie Izzard as Long John Silver and Toby Regbo as young Jim.

It got me to thinking, though, that I’d like to reread the book and we didn’t have a copy here in the house. So of course I had to remedy this.

I went nosing around online for a hardcover that wouldn’t be too expensive. (Meaning under $5. )

I found one, but this quest turned out to be a bit of a rabbit hole and that’s actually what today’s column is about, because the hardcover I ended up getting was something that provoked a flood of memories.

Chances are a lot of this will be lost on the younger folks, because the whole young-readers marketplace has changed into a completely different shape since I was a kid in 1968.

But anyway, here’s the background.

I first encountered Treasure Island in a collection of abridged ‘children’s classics’ from Reader’s Digest, a gift from my bookworm Grandma Hatcher.

(For a brief moment in my search, I thought about trying to replace it but that would have been strictly nostalgia, I actually have come to loathe Reader’s Digest Condensed Books over the years. )

But in my surfing around the internet for “Treasure Island hardcover,” I did find out how MANY of these bastard creations are out there. I kind of remembered this from elementary school visits to the library and so on, but there are a metric TON of these “young readers” abridged-adapted-whatever books out there published from the 1940s up through to the early 80s or so. I think it’s an ongoing thing even today, but certainly nowhere near the level it was back in 1968 or thereabouts. The ones I remember the most vividly were the Great Illustrated Classics, a collection of ‘adapted’ hardcovers that were a staple of the school library; not to be confused with Classics Illustrated, the comics that could be found in every pediatrician’s office I ever set foot in, in the same pile as the battered copies of Highlights and Golden Magazine.

But those are just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of these, ranging from Little Golden Books to Classic Starts For Young Readers, or whatever.

I don’t mean to disparage them– well, I do, a little, but in fairness I have to say adaptations like these were entry-level books for me, serving as on-ramps to the real thing around when I was in third and fourth grade.

Here’s the thing, though. The Treasure Island edition I ended up getting (for three bucks plus shipping) was a time-machine sucker punch for me like you wouldn’t believe, as soon as I saw the cover.

To understand why it hit my nostalgia buttons so hard, you have to understand the book-buying landscape of 1968, as it related to youthful Greg. See, even at age eight, I had the acquisitive, collector gene. And though my parents thought I was kind of a weirdo when it came to my love of books, Mom could be persuaded to shell out for one, if she thought something was, first of all, good for me (in an eat-your-vegetables kind of way) and secondly, cheap.

So I’d often be able to get her to sign us up for the various juvenile educational-subscription book things like, say, The Science Program books from Science Service, a mail-order series published through Doubleday. They were stapled paperback booklets, one a month, and every six months you’d get a cardboard bookshelf slipcase to put them in.

When the Science Program books ran out Doubleday switched us to the Know Your America series. Exact same deal, right down to the cardboard slipcase, though these were put together by the American Geographical Society.

Both series had a craft-project dimension to them; the books had an insert of gummed illustrations that you had to cut out and paste into place, like stamps.

I still have very fond memories of those, though I have to admit I was never very good at pasting in the pictures. Of course they’re long gone. (I occasionally toy with trying to replace my favorites, like Man in Space or Crime Detection, but they are going for gouger’s prices online and I don’t feel THAT strongly about it.)

These educational juvenile subscription-service books were also likely to show up at grocery stores, the big chain ones like Safeway or Fred Meyer. Usually in some kind of cardboard standup display near the front of the store. The come-on was that volume one was available for nineteen cents or something, with NO OBLIGATION! and then you could mail in a coupon to get signed up for the rest of the set. I didn’t have as much luck with getting Mom to cough up for these… though I did score a few nineteen-cent volume ones. I became quite the expert on subjects beginning with “A.”

All of this is background. The point is, the copy of Treasure Island I settled on was one of these. Educator Classics Library volume one. You never saw them in actual bookstores. Just at the grocery store or K-Mart.

I adored these books. They were wonderfully sturdy, durable hardcovers, not at all like the shitty binding you’d get from comparable supermarket kidlit volumes (looking at you, Whitman.) My first Sherlock Holmes was an Educator Classic as well, and that book is probably the first one I’d put on a list of books that literally changed my life. You can draw a direct line from Educator Classics volume seven to me writing my own Holmes stories a half-century later.

To this day my mind’s-eye vision of Holmes and Watson is the one provided by Don Irwin in that book’s illustrations. Irwin did all the covers for the series, though sometimes he left the interiors to someone else. It was a bit jarring, for example, to go from Irwin’s cover of Paul Bunyan

…to the interiors by William Dempster.

Youthful Greg did not care for the Dempster drawings AT ALL, though I’ve come around on them since then.

The Bunyan book was a bit of an anomaly, as it happens. I found it baffling back then and it still is a mystery today– I never did figure out who WROTE it. No author is credited. No one ever has indexed these or written anything of substance about the line that I can discover, so there’s nowhere to look it up. But as far as I can tell, Paul Bunyan is an original; the only one they ever did, I believe. With no one credited, I have to assume it was jobbed out to some junior editor, but it’s not just the usual bland rehash of the legends everyone knows. The Educator Classic Bunyan was remarkably funny and sharp, with a lot of the jokes sailing right over my seven-year-old head.

But most of the Educator Classics were just re-packagings, and the original prose was left untouched as a rule. Even The Heroes, a collection of retold Greek myths that I thought was another original, is actually just a repackage of an 1899 volume from a different publisher.

(I discovered that just this afternoon, as it happens. Kind of interested in the 19th century edition now. See what I mean about the rabbit hole?)

But anyway. There were twelve Educator Classics in all, in that first wave of 1968.

Almost all of them were unabridged. (The one exception, oddly enough, was the Holmes– the chapters concerning the backstory of the evil Mormon cult had been neatly lifted out of A Study In Scarlet. This was common practice in most juvenile editions of the Sherlock Holmes collections back then, though The Boys’ Sherlock Holmes at least explained the relevant plot points in a lengthy footnote.) Instead of trying to ‘adapt’ the stories, like most of these children’s-book packagers did, Educator Classics had helpful notes in the margins. Definitions of archaic words, descriptions of odd old-timey customs, things like that.

Honestly I think that’s a WAY better idea than hiring some hack writer to do a “children’s adaptation.”

Go ahead and let the kids see the hard words, but tell them what they are– without making therm constantly flip back and forth to a glossary in the back.

Many dealers think that those twelve are all there were. But the line was successful enough that a second set, this time with no numbering on the spine, came out in 1970.

Of course the mighty Don Irwin was once again doing the covers. And sometimes interiors.

When we are out on our bookscouting trips, if I see one out in the wild, I’ll almost always pick it up.

Usually there’s a likely young person to pass it on to. (I’ve given away and replaced my beloved Sherlock Holmes volume seven to budding young Holmesians at least four or five times now in my years of teaching middle school. Get ’em while they’re young, I say.)

The later ones from the 1970 series are damnably difficult to find, I’m told. The Howard Pyle King Arthur and Stevenson’s The Black Arrow are commanding high prices, at least for copies not covered in library stickers and beat to shit. Even one of the ratty ones will run you about ten bucks; a nice one generally goes for about fifty.

I did end up ordering a couple of the other 1968 issues I found for cheap, from the original twelve– Robin Hood and Paul Bunyan— along with Treasure Island. Writing and researching all this kind of gave me the collector’s itch again. I admit it. Not enough to go completely nuts (the total expenditure was less than twelve dollars) but enough to move these to the top of the list again.

So we got a little bookscouting in this weekend after all, in spite of everything. And I even got a column out of it.

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  1. tomfitz1

    Funny that you mention the Classics Illustrated series ….

    I miss the modern and updated Classics Illustrated series that First Comics published until its went into bankruptcy.

    Too bad, no other publishers continued with that same CI format.

  2. Dammit, Greg! That one image of Golden Book Encyclopedia volume 1 was a total trigger for me.

    Our local Safeway did a promo with those; each week a different volume went on sale for cheap (less than a buck), and all the others were available for about twice the price or more. If you dutifully bought each one during its sale week, you could get the whole set for cheap. Mom tried, but only made it as far as volume 12, so I don’t know a damn thing about anything starting with R through Z.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    I bought a K-Mart vended pair of juvie classics editions when I was going into high school, Three Musketeers and Ivanhoe. Musketeers was pared down to the main plot, which wasn’t a bad thing, as Dumas was usually serialized first, then published as a complete novel and he tended to pad things out. Most adult editions you find of The Count of Monte Cristo are abridged, as that thing is huge. Ivanhoe was abridged too much and I quickly got an unabridged paperback to replace it. I was introduced to the story via the Australian API animated version, shown on CBS Famous Classic Tales series, shown on holidays (I thought the title was Ivanhood, at first, until my dad set me straight) and then the tv movie version, with Anthony Edwards, James Mason, Olivia Hussey and Sam Neil. I wanted the whole shebang there.

    Still, if you want a hardcover of Treasure Island, you can’t beat the Scribner’s Edition, with the illustrations and color plates from NC Wyeth. I have a poster of the cover on my office wall, across from my movie poster of the Richard Lester Three Musketeers, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro (1940).

    The Great Classics line was pretty ubiquitous; but, I know I have seen those Educator’s Classics covers; either in my school library or at a relative’s house.

    I was lucky, my parents were teachers and books were beloved in my household, though we didn’t shell out for buying programs. School library and weekly visits to the Bookmobile sustained, plus the Scholastic Book Program.

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