November 27, 2005

Editing "Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever" for 1991 sensibilities.

Here's a Flickr set detailing the differences between "Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever," 1963 edition, and "Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever," 1991 edition. (Via Drawn!) It's not just political correctness either (e.g., lightening the fur on the animal driving in a car stopped by a police officer, making the police officer female). It's also a softening of the tone. "He comes promptly when he is called to breakfast," becomes "He goes to the kitchen to eat his breakfast." Think about what a change like that meant to the editors. Telling children what to do and expecting them not to balk? How retrograde!

The set makes nice use of the "add a note" function in Flickr. The comments are good too. The photographer is Kokogiak.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Also preschool kids today are not expected to understand the word "promptly" (we have scientific ways of determining the grade level of prose now), and the use of the passive voice is disapproved of by the style police. (Excuse me: "The style police disapprove of using the passive voice.") It would have to be, not, "When he is called," but, "When ____ calls him," and who would fill the blank? "His mother, father, or legally constituted guardian"?

PS: I taught myself to read from a very early Richard Scarry book when I was three. Back then he wasn't famous, so it was called "The Little Golden Book of Words." But the pictures are unmistakable.

Gordon Freece said...

Well you have to applaud their refusal to expose impressionable young minds to birch-bark. I mean, who knows what might happen? Teenage pregnancy skyrocketed after the original book was released. Okay, maybe not immediately after, but this is not an exact science here.

reader_iam said...

An experiment (unscientific, sure) and its result:

I just asked the kid (granted 5, not preschool) if he knew what "promptly" means and he said, "Don't be late! Right away! In two syllables!"

(OK, I was a tad surprised by the last bit.)

I asked how he knew and he said something along the lines of, "Oh, Moooooommm, you and dad have been saying that to me forevvvverrrrr when I daaawwwwdle."

(There's a visual here that I don't think I can capture--essentially it's how he looks when he's conveying his opinion that his parents nag him more than other kids get nagged. It's probably true.)

I think kids are much more capable of understanding relatively sophisticated spoken vocabulary (even if they won't be able to read it for a while) than they're given credit for--if adults bother to speak it around them. And it's not particularly difficult to teach them to ask if they don't understand a word. (Good practice, for them, too.)

I think that in the current trend toward pushing early "reading" (little "r") for all kids, we've dummied down the development of their "received" language--the vocabulary they can understand, or figure out from context, when spoken or read aloud to them. Paradoxically, I think that has negatively affected their "reading" (big "R") skills later in elementary school.

(Could this partly be why research shows that most--not all--but most early readers "norm out" relative to their peers by around 4th grade? Because their early achievement had to do more with their code deciphering skills than actual meaningful development and engagement with the world of words?)

reader_iam said...

By the way, Richard, "The Little Golden Book of Words" was one of the books I used to teach myself to read, too, at about 3-1/2, which would have been in '64. I recall having to be careful with it because it was a bit tattered. I suspect my parents picked it up at a garage sale or auction, which is where they got most of my early childhood books.

I also distinctly remember being jealous of a friend's getting "Best Word Book Ever" for Christmas in about 1965/66, and I assume it must have been the '63 edition.

Barry said...

So, net-net, the new editors dumbed it down, assuming that modern children will be both dumber and less compliant?

Yeah, that's about right. In terms of the expectations we set for them, anyway. In books like this one.

Ross said...

Now, changing "handsome pilot" and "pretty stewardess" to "pilot" and "flight attendant" reflects the language and nonsexist mores of the time. Fine. In the last shot, though, it changes "brave hero" and "beautiful screaming lady" to "firefighter" and "cat in danger." The change is in the same vein, but it clearly removes a bit of the drama and imaginative hook for the kids. I mean, "cat in danger"?

knox said...

A lot of what they took out is what makes the book quirky and fun to read. sad.