For many of us, classic literature and stories can be daunting at best and inaccessible at worst. The language can be tough to understand and the plots can seem completely outdated and unrelatable. However, retelling old stories in new ways can open up a whole world of literature for people by making it more relevant and understandable. This is especially true for children and teens.
When we tell a story, there are two core questions in the backs of our minds: “Why do we tell it?” and “What can we learn from it?” Stories can mean different things to different people, of course, but we tell and retell stories that have an impact on us because at the heart of them are relevant themes: love, hope, perseverance, family, to name a few.
Most school systems still have students read works by Shakespeare. If we want people to understand the core messages in a well-known play such as Macbeth—which contains contemporarily relevant questions around tyranny, betrayal, and morality—then why not make it understandable? By using simplified vocabulary and plots, stories like Macbeth can be accessible to a wider audience.
As humans, we will always retell stories, modifying them to fit contemporary needs. Consider the Grimm Brothers’ version of Cinderella, for example, and compare it to the more contemporary Disney-movie version. The Grimm Brothers’ version is quite different. It contains some more gruesome elements. Disney’s version eliminates those plot points while keeping other key points, such as the stepmother and stepsisters, similar. There are also other retellings of Cinderella that use the classic story to focus on contemporary issues like feminism.
For children especially, stories that contain big words they don’t understand can lead to frustration. While there are definitely benefits to reading stories like The Odyssey to youngsters—such as language acquisition and experiencing the story in its original format— it can be overwhelming. Children also have shorter attention spans than adults, making it much harder to get them to sit and listen to long stories. Starting children off with shorter stories with simpler vocabulary is a great way to build a strong language foundation and love of literature.
A book like Professor Noah’s Spaceship by Brian Wildsmith allows for the age-old tale of Noah’s Ark to be read in a way that is accessible, exciting, and engaging for young children. They can comprehend the core plot and message of the story, while also being introduced to contemporary worries like environmental protection.
When used side-by-side, modern retellings can help readers start to develop an understanding of the original text. For instance, The Lizzie Bennett Diaries series on YouTube is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. While the setting is modern-day and the language fits our contemporary vocabulary, the story itself follows the same path and the underlying plot and message are both still there.
Modern retellings can also lead to questions that can help engage with the text, like why something is omitted, why a character’s gender has been changed, etc. Asking these questions and thinking on their subsequent answers allow for a deeper understanding of the original text.
There are still immense benefits to reading classic stories in their original languages or translations. However, we should have fun with these texts, transform them, and make them more widely understandable. At the end of the day, stories are meant to be told. Whatever way is most digestible to a given audience, be it children, teens, or adults, should be celebrated and encouraged.