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Reading the Classics
The Many Ways Publishers Modify Books

by Deanna Knoll

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A Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, 1984, Les Miserables, The Iliad, Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter, The Lord of the Rings and Far from the Madding Crowd—CLASSICS! Upon seeing these titles, do your eyes glaze over and you're unsure where to even start or...do they make your heart beat faster at the thought of reading yet another great volume on the list of classics?

Regardless of where you find yourself in this spectrum of approaching the classics, we can all agree that books considered classics have stood the test of time. Full of rich, complex language and ideas, they usually become more appreciated with multiple readings. Not only that, our culture is full of references to classics—listening to the news or scrolling through social media will often turn up an allusion to one without you even realizing it. Have you ever heard or used the phrase, "catch-22"? Of course, but did you know it was taken from a classic by Joseph Heller of the same title? Have you referenced the boy who cried wolf, or referred to a person as a doubting Thomas or a scrooge? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…, a trojan horse, siren songs, the winter of our discontent, chasing a white whale, and an albatross—these are all common references to classics, and plenty more can be found.

Modified editions of the classics

Because of the universal appeal and cultural relevance of classics, publishers have often produced modified versions in an effort to present these exceptional stories to a wider audience. Many different terms are used to describe the various ways that publishers modify books and it can be confusing to understand the differences. This article focuses on defining those terms so you can be informed about your various options when it comes to reading the classics and make the best decision for yourself and your children.

Let’s explore some definitions.

Adapted or Retold

An adaptation or retelling is the re-creation of a story in an author's own words. Sometimes these can be a version of a book or tale that includes simplified text and pictures that convey a part of the original story but with significant modifications to increase accessibility for a different audience. In other types of adaptations, the author has rewritten the story using updated and more easily understandable words and phrases while still covering the tale in its entirety.

Winter Days in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (part of the My First Little House Books) tells just a short story about winter in the log cabin from the original book Little House in the Big Woods. With bright illustrations by Renée Graef, this book (and the rest of the series) is an ideal example of an adaptation that provides a glimpse into the complete Little House series. Another example of a lovely adaptation is James Herriot's Treasury for Children. Many of the stories in his original memoirs aren't suitable for young children, however, he has chosen some of the very best to adapt as picture books. Beautifully illustrated by Ruth Brown and Peter Barrett, these picture books clearly share the essence of Mr. Herriot's eclectic veterinary practice with thoughtful, gentle and laugh-out-loud stories without the drama and mature language found scattered throughout the originals.

Hans Brinker adapted by Bruce Coville shortens and tells the story from a different point of view, even while maintaining the main storyline and theme, along with vibrant illustrations on each page.

The book, Lassie Come-Home, by Eric Knight represents another type of adaptation. It was originally written as a short story for The Saturday Evening Post but expanded into a book later, greatly increasing the length. Another similar adaptation is Town Mouse, Country Mouse by Jan Brett which significantly expands one of Aesop’s Fables.

An adaptation much different than those mentioned above is the graphic novel. A Wrinkle in Time originally written by Madeleine L'Engle but adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson, tells the same story but uses a very different style to convey it. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne in the comic book series Graphic Classics greatly condenses and modifies this classic, but still tells the basic storyline in pictures.

Adaptations and retellings are particularly helpful in situations where the original contains graphic violence, sexual content or other more mature concepts. Les Miserables retold by Marcia Williams in graphic form, does not describe or illustrate the prostitution and includes minimal violence found in the original book by Victor Hugo. Many fairy tales in their original form either by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen are rather violent. We often think of Disney as the ultimate re-creator of fairy tales but there are many books that tell gentle versions of the originals while still remaining true to the original storyline. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen retold by Amy Ehrlich, Sylvia Long's Thumbelina, and Hansel and Gretel adapted by Will Moses are several examples of this type of adaptation.

Sometimes authors choose to modify their own written work to create an adaptation themselves. In the latter part of his life, Charles Dickens travelled throughout Europe and the United States performing shortened renditions of his own stories. These were later published as Charles Dickens: The Public Readings complete with stage cues, facial expressions and other reminders for himself as he was performing his readings. These provide quite an insight into this author and what he found most compelling in his own writings.

Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by Edith Nesbit is another perfect example of a retelling that preserves the main story line and ideas of Shakespeare's plays while leaving out many of the convoluted subplots, sexual conduct and more mature concepts that are standard Shakespeare fare. (Shakespeare is really a topic unto itself! There are many wonderful retellings, adaptations and excerpts available which were explored in more detail in Introduce your Family to Shakespeare with Retellings)


An edited book is one that has very specific content removed or changed. Spelling and punctuation may be modernized, as well as words changed to reflect current meaning in its context such as exchanging the word "queer" for "strange." A good example is the book Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling—most editions have been edited to remove a racial slur in the story, How the Leopard Got His Spots.


An annotated book is one with the original text but with notes of clarification, definitions or comments written in the margins or as footnotes explaining archaic terms or unfamiliar phrases or concepts. In addition, historical details are often added to enhance the reader’s understanding of the book. You can find prime examples of these such as The Call of the Wild annotated by Ron King and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer annotated by Al Davidson in the Educator Classic Library series. There are nearly 30 classics in this series that have been carefully annotated by noted experts on that specific book. Other good examples include The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner as well as Pride and Prejudice which is part of the Jane Austen Annotated Editions series. Isaac Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare is the ultimate annotated guide to the Bard's writings by providing the discerning reader with a working knowledge of what Shakespeare assumed his potential Elizabethan audience would already know.


An excerpt is simply a small section or sections of a book taken out of the original and republished. The wording and structure remain unchanged, the book is just incomplete. Many anthologies such as My Book House and Best in Children's Books reprint excerpts as part of their collection. The Gulliver's Travels excerpt by Jonathan Swift in the My Book House set provides a small sample of the book without changing or modifying the text.

Abridged or Condensed

An abridged or condensed book is similar to an excerpt except the book in its entirety is shortened with some chapters, sections, paragraphs, sentences and/or words removed from the original publication. Words and concepts are not added in, only taken out. Often subplots, adjectives, longer descriptions and flowery language (more often employed in classic texts) are removed for brevity or because they are considered obsolete.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe is commonly found in an abridged form with an entire chapter removed. Heidi by Johanna Spyri and Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss are both commonly abridged for a quicker read. Sometimes these abridgments are a result of different translations. Illustrated Junior Library and Junior Deluxe Editions published carefully abridged versions of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas removing the mature sexual content that limits the readership of the original.

Identifying and Selecting the Right Edition for Your Family

So how do you know if a book is one of the above or the original? Some series such as Great Illustrated Classics clearly identify books as "abridged and adapted" on the front cover. Others bury the information on the copyright page or in the foreword or preface. Still other books don’t identify any changes made at all.

Members of Biblioguides have an advantage. If a book has been adapted/retold, annotated, abridged, or excerpted it will be clearly identified. Otherwise you can accurately assume it is the original. If the book is not yet available within Biblioguides membership, you will need to carefully look through the copyright page and other publishing details as mentioned above to know for sure (although sometimes books are not identified that way at all which can be frustrating!)

A word of caution—if you decide that an adaptation or retelling is the best way for you or your child to dip into a classic, know that all adaptations, retellings and abridged books are NOT created equal. For example, Wikipedia will provide you with the basic plot of almost any classic you select. However, if you want more than just the characters, plot and how it ends, you will need to seek out quality adaptations. In addition, there are many other adaptations (think generic cartoon paperbacks) that, although they may preserve some of the storyline, often lack the character development, rich storytelling and compelling illustrations that good adaptations contain.

This is where Biblioguides' depth can be particularly helpful. The selections available, whether abridged, adapted, retold or not, are carefully curated to provide you with only the best options—those that truly meet the criteria of a living, vibrant book. Not only that, each original book is linked with its adaptations/retellings, abridgments, and excerpts—depending on what you are looking for. The reading level attached to the book, along with the example page, will give you a sense of whether this particular book will fit your reading need.

Now when IS the ideal time to read an original classic or translation of the original? The best time for reading classics is when the reader is capable and prepared to read and comprehend the complete text. Classics are classics for a reason. The rich language the author chose is part of what truly makes a classic. There are lovely nuances and details the author intends for you to appreciate by reading his or her entire book…when you or your child is ready.

With that being said, a beautiful retelling or adaptation can be a wonderful introduction to the storyline, to help prepare your heart and mind for the original. Grasping an understanding of the basic plot and theme provides a scaffolding for you to be able to refer to when you take on the classic itself. And...when you read a carefully selected adaptation, it will likely whet your appetite for the original.

With the recognition that many of us have children with different types of needs and learning capabilities who may not have the ability to tackle an original classic, we also have a great resource article coming soon that will help answer how to share classics with them.

So, what classic are you going to read this year? Maybe Homer's Odyssey is too much to add to your reading stack for now—come back to it when it is a better fit for your life and consider trying a different, less complex classic in the meantime. Or...pick up a beautiful retelling of it, knowing that you are preparing yourself for more in due time.

Deanna Knoll

Deanna Knoll

Family on my mind and in my heart. Book lover, outdoor enthusiast, pediatric physical therapist, musician and library builder.

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