Congratulations! You just read "Oliver Twist" in 12 words - or at least, Jack and Holman Wang's take on it. The twin brothers are the brains behind Cozy Classics, a series of children's block books that condenses classics like "Pride and Prejudice" and "War and Peace" into just 12 words and unusual illustrations of needle felted characters. The brothers have just added "Oliver Twist," "Jane Eyre" and "Emma" to their collection, and plan to release "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" in the spring.
The books are a far cry from the splashy, cartoonish block books that fill up children's bookshelves. Jack Wang, who is a writing professor at Ithaca College, said he wanted something different for his daughters after reading aloud tons of insipid board books about barnyard animals. "There was something uninspired about the genre, so I asked myself, how can they be wittier, funnier, more beautiful? How can they appeal to adults as much as to kids and have a sense of narrative as well?" said Jack. "That’s where I came across the idea to abridge classics." Jack enlisted his brother Holman to help him, and they decided the best way to shorten canonical works was to simply use one word per page.
"We didn’t want parents to be slaves to the text," said Holman. "We knew if we put one sentence on each page the parents would read it and then just move on. With one word, parents are free to storytell and elaborate and the books are more relevant for a longer period of time." The Wangs pointed out that the books are so simple, parents can even read them to an infant, but the bare bones format means that the books appeal to an older audience - adult readers can project their own interpretations onto the words and scenes. Even high schoolers are getting in on the trend.
"My high school teacher used our book as a basis for an exercise in her Advanced Placement English class," said Jack. "She asked them to present books like 'Madame Bovary' and 'Catch 22' in 12 words and 12 pictures and it really challenged the student to know the story well but present the essential narrative element." Jack said he also uses the books in his own English classes at Ithaca College.
Each page of the Wangs' Cozy Classics books features just one word. Credit: Metro / Simply Read Books
Even for the Wangs, condensing a book that is thousands of words long down to 12 words is a huge challenge. Jack said he takes the first crack at 12 words and Holman keeps him honest. "The focus is on the main narrative arc," said Jack. "You can’t get into the secondary characters and secondary plots. And you can't choose any 12 words - it’s not just 12 words but 12 child appropriate words." Jack said even after that process, they have an editor who may suggest changes to the 12 words. Holman added that sometimes, after they are finished with the illustrations, they have to reconsider the words as well. The brothers also said that one misconception about books is that the 12 words must represent 12 separate, pivotal scenes. "If you just pick the 12 most memorable scenes, that doesn’t work because you need to have the emotional turn," explained Holman.
The brothers both needle felt the characters themselves for the block books, and Holman takes photos. The books, like their predecessors, are occasionally gloomy. "Oliver Twist" is illustrated with earth tones and Oliver barely cracks a smile throughout most of the book. "Each book has its own set of tones and creates a different sense of place and mood," explained Holman. "We try to basically stay true to the spirit of a particular novel." The Wangs also argued that children's books don't need to be cheery. "Kids are more drawn to darkness than you'd think," said Holman. "Maurice Sendak once said in an interview there’s this presumption that childrens books should be healthy and cheerful and upbeat and not show the little tattered edges of life, but that’s all he knew and that’s what he showed in his books." He added, "We're trying to get away from fluffy bunnies and pink princesses."