A couple of my co-workers and I had a discussion about Charles Dickens’s classic Oliver Twist the other day. It sounds like I work in a very intellectual and refined environment, but it was really about whether or not Dickens intended the character of Master Bates to have such an unfortunate name. (Verdict: Probably). I have a vague recollection of the story to begin with, and it made me wonder if I’d read the full version at all. The one I know that I’ve read was part of a series of adapted versions of classics for children. My grandmother gave them to my siblings and me, and we referred to them as “the little books”.
After doing some research, I found out that the series was from a publisher called Moby Books. Each book was about 5 1/2 by 4 inches big—that’s why we gave them that nickname. It makes sense that I remember them with brownish pages and worn covers because the books were published in the 1970s and 1980s, which means that they were second-hand when Grandma bought them or they were passed down from my cousins, so by the time I read them, they were pretty old. That part didn’t matter, though. The books had a lot of text but they had very detailed illustrations as well.
The little books also weren’t bowdlerized too much as far as I know. In fact, two of them scared me. One was, predictably, Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Terror. “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” didn’t bother me as much as “The Cask of Amontillado” did. I still remember the illustration of the narrator building a wall around his confused drunk victim in the jester suit. I particularly remember a sentence describing how the jester’s cries for help died down into the sound of the bells on his hat jingling quietly. I read the full version of the book later on and that story didn’t seem so scary as some of the others, but as a child, it’s a lot easier to grasp the terror of a man being essentially buried alive as opposed to that of hearing an imaginary heart beating.
Still, even the Poe book didn’t scare me as much as the misleadingly named The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Oh, his adventures are merry, as are his men, but that’s what makes Robin Hood’s death all the more shocking. Here’s how Robin Hood dies: he’s not feeling well so he decides to go to see his cousin, who’s a nun/doctor. She prepares his arm for bloodletting because that’s how everything was cured in those days. Then she cuts open a vein in his arm and he bleeds to death. It’s not an accident, either. Something was up with Cousin Nun to begin with because one of the Merry Men offered to go with him as protection, but no, Robin Hood had to be all trusting and everything. There’s a picture of her greeting him at the door of the abbey too. Find that in the Disney version.
That’s not to say the little books scared me off of classic literature. Far from it. Grandma’s attempts to get me interested in science didn’t progress beyond the fun of rock tumbling, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything she gave me, and that’s stayed with me. Except for Oliver Twist. I don’t think I made the leap into the grown-up version. You know, the one with Master Bates.