Chances are you’ve seen lists of “books everyone must read” or “books to read before you die”, or something similar. And it’s also pretty likely that you’ve tried to read some of these “essential” or “classic” books, only to find them dense and difficult. Books written in the 19th or 20th centuries often have a very different writing style than modern works, which makes it more challenging to get hooked and keep reading. My secret? I do my best to read the original, and then read a fantastic YA retelling. There are a lot of YA authors taking these iconic stories and making them accessible to modern readers so they get the story’s proper emotional effect. Here are two examples of what I mean.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is undoubtedly a classic. It has been referenced in plays, movies, and TV shows for years due to its universal themes of obsession, revenge, and their destructive effects. However, this book is also a classic example of a wordy 19th century writing style, and in my opinion Melville tells you way more about the technical aspects of whaling than you need to know. The point of this book for me is in Ahab’s obsession and its deadly effects for innocent bystanders like Ishmael and the rest of the crew. If you agree with me (or just don’t have time to wade through some five hundred pages) another way to experience this story is And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness. It retells the Moby-Dick story from the whale’s perspective: a pod of whales led by Captain Alexandra goes to war with the human Toby Wick, with devastating consequences for all concerned. It maintains the gravitas and the action of the original, but it makes some really effective changes. Among other things, it has beautiful illustrations and the perspective change really highlights the complicated ethical questions hinted at in the original. And it’s shorter, by a lot. Not an action-adventure reader? Not to worry, I have a romantic example too.
Jane Eyre is, to be fair, one of my favorite books even in its original form. The ordinary but strong-willed protagonist who determines her own fate and goes after what she wants is inspiring to me, and the writing style isn’t nearly as bad as it could be. However, for me the book spends the middle section of the book slogging through a fairly irrelevant subplot before returning to the main story, and I have some ethical concerns about Mr. Rochester – this is the main character’s fairly pushy love interest, who (spoiler alert) locks his mentally ill wife in the attic of his house and tries to marry the main character anyway. For these reasons I was delighted to discover Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne. It retells the Jane Eyre story with a few improvements – setting the action on a futuristic spaceship, keeping the story’s pace moving, and tweaking a few things to make the love interest less problematic.
These are just two examples of a great trend in YA literature – translating iconic historical works into modern terms so the story and its significance isn’t lost on present and future generations. There are plenty more I could highlight, including remixes of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, and lots of fairy tales. Don’t get me wrong, I love the new stories being written just as well, but there’s something special about rediscovering great stories (and their lessons) so many years later. More than that, I like looking at what gets changed, because it shows me how the world and its systems change over time to be more ethical, inclusive – or just more interesting!