The New York Times recently noted that “Masters of Prose” such as Jane Smiley, Calvin Trillin and Elena Ferrante had warmed up to writing children’s books. This trend, however, has not stopped at the boundaries of the river Styx, as the major publishing houses have now confirmed that some of the most accomplished deceased authors of all time have begun submitting children’s books as well.
Some of these new manuscripts, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s middle grade fantasy, The Potter’s Tale, seem openly derivative. In a statement released by Chaucer’s agent, Armand Jean du Plessis, however, the Canterbury Tales author denied having read the works of J.K. Rowling until after he completed his own novel, and called the plethora of similarities, from the village of Swinemeade to lead character Henry Potter, a sure sign that Rowling was a medium who had used her abilities to peek over his shoulder as he worked on the other side.
Other deceased authors, such as Emily Bronte, have chosen to adapt their books for younger, more modern audiences. Bronte’s new Wuthering High features a seemingly kind but strict Headmaster, Mr. Earnshaw, who takes in a strange sullen Romanian exchange student, Heathcliff. Heathcliff unexpectedly connects with the school’s queen bee, Earnshaw’s own daughter Catherine. He leaves the remote private school under a cloud but when Heathcliff returns as the school’s new Headmaster things really hit the fan. According to Bronte, “it’s not plagiarism when you steal from yourself.”
Bronte is not alone in adapting her works. William Shakespeare, who professed himself delighted with modern picture books, has produced two himself, a Folio for Fred, and Much Ado About Christmas. The Bard has also submitted a Young Adult novel: Titus, an adaptation of Titus Andronicus of which he is said to have amplified the violence, carnal elements, and dramatic tension to make it fit the genre.
Of The Princess, a surprising early chapter book by Niccolo Machiavelli, the author related that while modern children’s literature evinced a laudably broad interest in princesses, with the exception of Shannon Hale, these books presented an inefficient exercise of power to their young readers. “The Princess provides a very different sort of edification than simply learning to handle disappointments, accept differences and be a good friend,” said Machiavelli.
Publishing executives have been quick to note that they expect big numbers from these big dead authors. “If you want to talk about a proven track record and name recognition to go along with a great product, you are talking about Virginia Woolf’s new transgender tour de force, Orlando,” said Houghton Mifflin’s Alexandra Schmelzle. When told that the galley of Orlando appeared to be just a reprint of Woolf’s original novel published in 1928, Schmelzle replied that that assertion was “ridiculous.”
At PRH Kate Sullivan noted, “We are thrilled to announce an as yet untitled picture book collaboration on the seasons authored by Henry David Thoreau and illustrated by Sandro Botticelli. It can’t miss.” Harper and Simon and Macmillan have all apparently signed author-illustrator William Blake to do a children’s book version of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. “It seemed like a no-brainer,” said Harper’s Olga Nolan, “but now what, eh? How do you sue a dead person?”
Unscrupulous dealings by afterlife author agents aside, not all dead authors were positive about this development. Edgar Allan Poe noted that “the whole enterprise reeks of the mad pride of intellectuality. There is such a thing as expertise in a given field of endeavor, or genre.” Poe singled out fellow macabre author H.P. Lovecraft’s forthcoming board book version of The Thing on the Doorstep as ill advised. “Now that,” said Poe, “is not going to do anyone’s childhood a favor.”