When is a classic not a classic?

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I came across a copy of Alice in Wonderland the other day, published by Ladybird.  It is from a range of imprints called, Children’s Classics.  But, it’s not writen by Lewis Carroll, it’s retold by Joan Collins.  ‘Why?’ I wondered, and then, ‘Can this really be necessary?’

I first read the Lewis Carroll story when I was quite young, and loved it.  I don’t remember it as a difficult read. It was funny, in a way I had never come across before.  I was fascinated by the puns, the word games and the ideas.

Looking back, I see this as a moment of revelation.  Here was not realism, it was not adventure, or fairy-tale, it was something unlike any other book I had been offered.  Wonderland really did sum it up.  But that was a few decades ago, and it’s been a while since I last read it.  Perhaps, I thought, the writing does look dated now.

I fetched my dog-eared copy off the shelf.  First published 1865, so it is a little older than I had assumed.   Here is Lewis Carroll’s opening:

‘Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do.  Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Surely, I thought, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Actually, I would be happy to offer it as an example of a good story opening.  It creates setting, tone and provides an inciting incident and perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I cannot find a superfluous word.

I opened the Joan Collins re-telling:

‘Alice was tired of sitting by her sister on the grassy bank, and having nothing to do. Her sister was reading a book with no pictures or conversations in it. It looked very dull.’

I read on for a couple more pages, but gave up.  This story certainly did look very dull, despite the pictures.  What had happened to the vivid language?  Where were the colourful characters?  Several of them had actually disappeared – no more Dodo, Lory or Eaglet, only ‘a strange collection of birds and animals’.   This was not the charming fantasy that I remembered, it was little more than a series of linked scenes. The whimsical humour of the story had been cut away.  Incidents have been erased or condenced down to a sentence, and carefully constructed jokes reduced to one liners.

I thought about how often I have pre-judged a peice of writing because of the distance since it was written.  Sometimes, when I open that book I am proved right.  Lorna Doone, which I love, is mostly written in a dense style that can make it hard going at times, but the thing is, it’s worth being patient with.  The language is a part of what creates the world of story, and I wouldn’t loose a word of it.

So I answered my original ‘Why?’ with another question, ‘If I had read a re-telling of ‘a classic’, would it have interested me enough so that I would seek out the original?’  Which led me to wonder who this version is aimed at.  Children do not all progress at the same level, or have the same interests, but surely the way to enthuse them about reading is to provide them with good fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to advocate a purist approach to literature.  I have not forgotten Aristotle’s seven plots, and Shakespeare forbid that I should knock any writer taking inspiration from another text.  But this is not another author putting their imagination into an idea, and giving it a new spin.  It’s not a translation or adaptation either.  I’m struggling to see this as anything other than a reduction.

Here’s the question I want to answer, ‘Is this the standard of writing that we want children to learn from, and therefore grow up expecting from fiction?

Writing Blocks – Strategy 2.

I had to go for some training the other day.  In the break one of the other tutors said, ‘I’d love to write, but I have no imagination.’

A lot of people believe that.  I don’t.

I suppose it depends on how you perceive imagination, and writers.  Even though writing courses are now available at many universities, it is still possible to come up against the belief that writers are born and cannot be taught.

My friend, the language tutor, had something like that in mind, and we had an interesting discussion about how much creativity she already used in planning and delivering lessons.   The discussion broadened out to include other activities.  I suggested that any kind of a plan required the use of our imagination, from writing a shopping list to working out the details of a holiday.

‘Yes, but,’ she said, ‘it’s not like writing a story. I’ve never had a good idea.’

There it was, the one word that gave the game away, ‘good’.  She had had ideas.  Most people do.  What was really stopping her from translating her ideas into writing was that most annoying of all blocks, her inner critic.

I’m sure you know the one I mean, that quiet but insistent voice that is always trying to control your imaginative impulses.  It says things like:

  • ‘You stole that idea.’
  • ‘Anyone can see you’re not being original.’
  • ‘You think you can write?  This is just a cheap copy of Katherine Mansfield, A.S. Byatt, Raymond Carver, Stephen King…’
  • ‘How can YOU, call yourself a writer?  You’re not clever enough, or wise, or talented.’
  • ‘You are being ridiculous.’
  • ‘You are not a writer.’

The list goes on, endlessly.

I have two strands of attack for my inner critic.

  1. Overpower it.  Timed writing exercises are great for this.   The need to complete a task within a set period means my focus is all on what I am writing.   Try the free-writing exercise I’ve set below.
  2. Aristotle.  Yes, I am talking about a theory that was written in 335 BCE.  Think about it.  Aristotle claimed that there were 7 basic plots, and most of us still agree with him.  So, all those years, those hundreds and thousands of stories told and written, have all been reworking the same seven ideas.  If it was good enough for Chaucer, Shakespeare, Boccaccio and the hundreds of other storytellers to do that, who am I to think I can produce plot number 8?  Of course, that won’t stop me trying, but there’s another story.

Free-writing – The rules are strict on this.  If you break them, it doesn’t work.


A timer – mechanical or digital, or a friend with a watch.

paper & pen/pencil,

or wordprocessor.


  • We’re starting off gently.  Your aim is to write for two minutes without stopping.
  • Once the timer is set the writer must start writing and not stop until the two minutes are up.
  • You must not pause once you have begun – ignore grammer, spelling and punctation mistakes.
  • This is not about creating a plot, with a beginning, middle and end, it is about freeing up your access to the creative areas of your mind.  Don’t inhibit or restrict yourself, let words form on the screen or paper without thought.
  • If you get stuck don’t stop, write, ‘I’m stuck I’m stuck I’m stuck…’ You will soon find you are writing something else.
  • Do not think about where you are going with this peice of writing, you must not be following a plan. Copy the words and then continue writing without stopping until the timer stops you.
  • When you are ready to begin, write:  ‘She would always…’

If you try this, why not post your result below.