Giving Children the Classics: Moppet Books and Copyright

For the past few weeks, Publishers Weekly has been covering a copyright case involving publisher Moppet Books, which seeks to print a series of picture book adaptations of several classic novels that are still under copyright. These “KinderGuides,” as Moppet calls them, would aim to get young children interested in reading classic works of fiction. However, the estates of several authors, as well as Random Penguin House and Simon & Schuster, have brought suit to prevent the books’ publication. Thus far, the litigation has gone the copyright holders’ way.

As Andrew Albanese reported this past Thursday, Judge Jed Rakoff of the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has:

…signed off on a permanent injunction immediately barring Moppet Books from distributing in the U.S. any versions of its KinderGuides series held to be infringing, until the works on which they are based enter the public domain. In addition, Moppet Books also agreed to destroy all current copies of the infringing works “in its possession or under its control” within 10 days… [However,] the injunction includes an automatic stay on the destruction of existing stock, pending the “final outcome” of the appeal process.

I am obviously not a lawyer, so I don’t know whether Moppet Books’ KinderGuides are sufficiently transformative to qualify for fair use, as their defense has claimed. (Completely uninformed gut feeling: the copyright holders are in the legal right here.) And I can’t comment much on the adaptations themselves, since all I’ve seen of these books are few scattered page scans included in the press coverage.

What I can do, though, is talk about the concept of adapting classic novels for children. Based on my own experience, I think that something like the KinderGuides could be a valuable tool for getting children interested in the classics, and it is a shame that copyright law makes publishing such adaptations for tomorrow’s canon so difficult.

When I was in elementary school (probably 3rd grade), I remember a used book seller coming to our classroom and laying out tons and tons of cheap books for us to buy with our spare quarters. Younger me came across a somewhat beat-up paperback with a cool looking cover and an interesting title: Around the World in Eighty Days.

Now, this was not in fact Jules Verne’s original 1873 novel, but rather an illustrated and abridged version published by Moby Books. And oh, how I loved it. Every spare moment I had for the next week went toward following the adventures of Phileas Fogg and Passpartout in their quest to, well, travel around the world in eighty days. I can still see Passpartout’s towering figure from the illustrations on every other page, still feel the tension from the hurried, perilous transatlantic voyage on the Henrietta.

I wouldn’t read the original, unabridged version of Around the World in Eighty Days for a few more years (which was about the time it took me to realize that I hadn’t actually read it yet). But that cheap little paperback sparked my love of Jules Verne, and for that I’m thankful. I’m pretty sure that if I had started with the original text, younger me would have been rather bored and confused, or at least overwhelmed by the length, and would thus be reluctant to give Jules Verne a fair shake when he was older.

For the Twains and Melvilles of the world, the Dickenses and Brontës, it’s easy to find approachable adaptations of their works for children. After all, all their books are in the public domain, so there is no legal barrier to producing them. But when it comes to the likes of Hemingway, Kerouac, Clarke and Capote (the authors whose estates are involved in the Moppet case), copyright law makes producing such adaptations far more difficult.

Whether something like KinderGuides would actually lead to more children reading classic literature, I’m not certain. But at the very least, it did so for me. It’s an idea worth pursuing.