A few years ago, to entertain my kids on a drive up Island, I told them the story of Romeo and Juliet. My daughter and sons, aged seven, six and four, were a captive audience, strapped in car seats in the back. As we headed up the Malahat, I introduced all the characters, built up Tybalt’s slaying of Mercutio, even described the clouds of Juliet’s potion as the friar swirled it in a jar. The kids were rapt. But when I finally said the end, the car remained silent. Had I put them to sleep? I glanced in the rear view mirror. It revealed three red faces awash with tears. My daughter, the oldest, sobbed, “Why did you have to tell us that?” Then the other two started wailing.

Re-telling the classics for children is an art. Those who do it right understand their audience and never lose touch with their respect for the books. They boil them down, paraphrase, abridge, use large brushstrokes and supplement their texts with generous illustrations.

One recent project is Cozy Classics, a board book series that has won hearts and rave reviews around the world. Published by Vancouver’s Simply Read Books (a company that makes beautiful books, but was in hot water last year for not paying its writers and artists, a problem they addressed by promising to hire a good bookkeeper), the titles—for babies! —include Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, Emma, War and Peace and Les Misérables. The books are each 12 words long, one word per double page. The entire text of Les Misérables goes like this: poor, rich, sad, happy, run, climb, stroll, love, fire, stop, dark, together. Each word is paired with a charming needle-felted illustration.

“‘We created Cozy Classics to revitalize the genre of the baby word books by injecting a sense of narrative and fun for the parent,” says creator Jack Wang, who boils down great novels with his brother Holman Wang. “In doing so, we hope to foster in children a lifelong love of reading and literature.”

My favourite Cozy Classics is Jane Eyre. It starts with the word Girl (unhappy Jane, living with the Reeds), then Red (the red room that falsely accused Jane is locked inside as punishment), Stand (her humiliation on her first day in residential school), Woman (Jane grown up), Fall (Rochester’s fall from the horse), Help (Jane helping Rochester), Kiss (lips not quite touching!), Stairs (those harrowing stairs at Thornwood), Leave (Jane’s night-time flight from Thornwood), Cold (poor Jane’s terrible hours alone and homeless), Hot (the fire at Thornwood), Care (Jane looking after Rochester). Parents can fill in the blanks (what’s up those stairs? Why is she leaving?), making up parts that kids might not be ready for (do you need to tell your baby about polygamy?), or just talk about what’s in the pictures.

BabyLit is a Utah publisher’s similar effort, enjoyable but less endearing. BabyLit books include Dracula, a counting book—three wolves, six tombstones, nine boxes (actually, to the trained eye, coffins). Their Don Quixote is a sweet introduction to Spanish words—friend/el amigo, castle/el Castillo. Anna Karenina focuses on Anna’s clothes and accouterments: lovely button-up boots, parasol, carriage. Other board books are Treasure Island and Sense and Sensibility.

Enduring popular works of literature generally have robust central plots and characters; complex language can be trimmed, secondary plots and characters can be pruned, but the story’s heart still pounds. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, picture books and graphic novels are excellent delivery systems for classics.

You can’t go wrong with Marcia Williams, the indefatigable English illustrator who has retold Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and The Odyssey for children ages eight to 14, as well as several of Shakespeare’s plays, Dickens’s Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, and Greek and Egyptian myths. Her richly filled, comics-style pages are feasts for the eye, and the stories are easy to follow but not diminished.

The nearly infallible publisher Usborne has a terrific Illustrated Stories from Shakespeare that retells Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night for children as young as six. I am still looking for a good King Lear for children—it seems like one that kids would easily understand. (Incidentally, Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, originally published in 1807, is freely available online at eldritchpress.org. I find their prose versions very dull, but they were helpful to read before the kids and I would head to any Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival production, as scaffolding to help understand the play).

From 1941 to 1961, Classics Illustrated produced comics versions of 169 classics such as Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, The Call of the Wild, and The Invisible Man. In the 1990s, the series was revived, with reprints and whole new titles. The Greater Victoria Public Library has a number of the “Full-Colour Graphic Novel Adaptations,” as they are heralded on their covers, “Featuring Stories by the World’s Greatest Authors.” While they can look dated and are sometimes unnecessarily wordy, they are faithful retellings.

My 12-year-old son says that reading abridged classics leaves him interested in reading the real deal one day. He has read The Odyssey in several guises (I highly recommend Gillian Gross’s version for eight- to 12-year-olds and Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel adaptation for 10- to 14-year-olds). Last week, my son tackled the real version. He put it down after only a few pages (he skipped the 40-page introduction) because he felt no tension. He already knew how the story would turn out—there had been so many spoilers. But after a few days, he picked it up again. I wonder if the unfamiliar narrative strands, simply the language, maybe even its historicity, wading in 1300-year-old words, won him to it.

The classics settle into all corners of our lives. We quote them—all’s well that ends well—and reference them—don’t be a Scrooge—without even realizing it. The recent picture books Edgar and the Tattle-Tale Heart and Virginia Wolf accept the ubiquity with playfulness. Edgar and the Tattle-Tale Heart, published by BabyLit, rifs on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell Tale Heart. While his mother is out, a boy breaks a sculpture in the house, a bust of Edgar Allan Poe, and his sister threatens to tell. The story stands well on its own, but if you know Poe’s story, you see the book’s many winks: the sculpture in pieces (as the old man was hacked to pieces in Poe’s story), the boy’s eventual confession (like the killer’s in The Tell Tale Heart), even the rising slope of the story’s tension.

Virginia Wolf, published by Canada’s Kids Can Press, is gorgeously illustrated and beautifully told. Said to be loosely based on the relationship between Virginia Woolf and her sister, the story starts with a blue (wolfish) Virginia and her the sunny sister’s efforts to cheer her up. Her most lovely effort is a colourful drawing of a place where Virginia wishes she could be—a place called Bloomsberry. The picture is filled with blooms and berries, and ultimately woos Virginia from her slump.

Sara Cassidy’s six books for children and teens have all been included in Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s “Best Books for Children and Teens.” Sara lives in Victoria with her three kids, and at saracassidywriter.com. Book Nook is written with the invaluable assistance of GVPL librarian Lonestar Stone.