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Babies Can't Read 'War and Peace'

Photograph by Getty Images

First let me say that I am not opposed to efforts trying to make a buck off of parents. Bad economy, slow jobs growth, I get it. I really do. That said, I just can't get with the Les Miserables board book for diaper-wearing pre-readers. I can't get with the Moby Dick or the Pride and Prejudice books, and I really, really can't with War and Peace. They're all great novels (or so I'm told). But baby books? What, to encourage kids to take care of their teeth through the desperation of Fantine?

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Maybe that's just me. Two publishing groups have been dabbling in the English canon for kids and seeing quite a bit of interest. BabyLit and Cozy Classics series take the best known works of English literature, strip them of story and all but the most illustratable nouns and/or main characters, and sells them for $10 a copy.

The New York Times is reporting that these things are selling like crazy—BabyLit has sold 300,000 copies so far. The publisher at the small Utah-based company, Susan Gibbs Taylor, speaks about the books as if they're a mission. She tells the Times, "you're never too young to start putting things in front of them that are a little more meaningful, that have more levels."

Do kids actually like these, or are these mainly gag gifts for the infant English major who has everything?

Perhaps she's right, though apparently Romeo & Juliet is more or less a counting book. Clifford Bubbles accomplishes the same thing with less (or an absence of) pretense. But the stakes are always rising for competitive parenting, and now we can expose kids to the classics before they can even speak. But I wonder: Do kids actually like these, or are these mainly gag gifts for the infant English major who has everything? Isn't monomaniacal Captain Ahab a bit dark for a monomaniacal toddler working on his hook handed-like pincher grasp? How much is too much lost when the famously thick book about the Great White Whale is boiled down to ... 12 words?

Perhaps I protest too much.

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Truth be told, I think I want a set for me. A felt doll Huck Finn with matchy-matchy Mr. Darcy? Jabberwocky: A Nonsense Primer? I'll make room on the bookshelf, my bookshelf.

For my kids, though, I'm sticking to bunnies, Sandra Boynton and that self-indulgent mouse and her pancakes.

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