The Cozy Classics board book adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels are handsome and clever (and reasonably priced, too). The new Emma is just as charming as the Cozy Classics Pride and Prejudice (here’s the link to my review of that book), with twelve key words chosen to highlight important moments from the plot, and beautiful felted figures photographed in appropriate settings, often in the natural world.
The faces of these felted dolls, handmade by brothers Jack and Holman Wang, are simple but expressive. Emma winks at the reader when she introduces Harriet Smith to Mr. Elton (“hello”), and again when Harriet thanks Frank Churchill for rescuing her (“thanks”). She raises her eyebrows when Mr. Elton proposes (“surprise!”), and sets her mouth in a line when she takes Harriet’s hand to pull her away from Robert Martin. And poor Robert Martin! He tilts his head and furrows his brow when Harriet says “goodbye” (or rather, when Emma says goodbye for her).
Poor Miss Bates, too. She clasps her hands and looks down, frowning, when Emma and Frank Churchill laugh and point at her at the Box Hill picnic. She has a furrowed brow that’s even more anxious than Mr. Martin’s. Mr. Knightley frowns and raises his hands when he asks Emma “why?” she has separated Harriet from Robert Martin, but he is positively fierce (okay, as fierce as a small felted doll can be) when he confronts Emma after she makes her infamous joke at Miss Bates’s expense (“angry”). In the earlier confrontation, we see his angry face in profile, and Emma looks away from him, arms crossed. In the Box Hill scene, he faces the reader and Emma with his glare and his frown. “Badly done, indeed!” Emma’s back is to us, and this time her hands appear to be clasped in front of her. The slight angle at which she tilts her head makes it clear she’s not meeting Mr. Knightley’s eyes. It’s astonishing just how much emotion is packed into this tiny book.
Writers sometimes say that composing sentences in 140 characters to post on Twitter is a good way to learn how to be concise. Before I discovered the Cozy Classics books, I would never have imagined that condensing a Jane Austen novel into twelve words could be a useful exercise. I’m often disappointed when two-hour film adaptations leave out crucial scenes from the novels, so it’s surprising to find that a board book adaptation can be so effective at conveying the highlights of an Austen novel. Obviously, there are all kinds of important people, things, and scenes missing from this board book: Mr. Woodhouse, Jane Fairfax, gruel, the piano, and the ball at the Crown, for example. But the Wang brothers’ choice of words tells children a great deal about the story, even if they read on their own, without an adult to fill in more details and names.
I missed the details of Austen’s novel most at the end. The story moves quickly from Mr. Knightley being “angry” to Emma being “sorry” to the two of them being “happy” on the last page. (Harriet and Robert Martin are in the background, happily reunited.) It just isn’t that simple. When Jane Austen shows how Emma responds to Mr. Knightley’s rebuke, we learn about her examining her conscience and discovering that in her attitude toward Miss Bates, “She had been often remiss … ; remiss, perhaps, more in thought than fact; scornful, ungracious.” She judges herself more harshly than Mr. Knightley does, and I’ve long been fascinated by the way she reflects on her mistakes. There’s no doubt that she learns from Mr. Knightley, but she doesn’t learn only from him, and simplifying the plot of Emma will nearly always suggest that his judgement is her rule of right (to paraphrase Henry Crawford’s words to Fanny Price in Mansfield Park). Emma eventually learns to attend to the “better guide” in herself (to paraphrase Fanny’s reply to Henry).
There is of course no substitute for the complexities of an Austen novel. But for very young readers, the Cozy Classics Emma is an excellent place to begin learning about the emotional world of some of Austen’s most memorable characters.
Read more about Jane Austen for Kids here.