Friday, December 16, 2011

Is the Original Always Better?

Lately I've read a few books which are clearly derivative of (or perhaps, more positively, homages to), classics which came before them.  They are not "remakes" in the sense of movies with new casts and updated language and settings.  Rather, they use the original work as a starting point for a whole new work.

Wendy Mass's middle-grade novel, The Candymakers, has a premise similar to that of Roald Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (recently published in a new pop-up edition by famed illustrator Quentin Blake), but with several twists.  It's been called a cross between Charlie and The Westing Game.  In The Candymakers, the four protagonists are contestants in a candymaking competition and the perspective of the book shifts among them (although none of them narrate it directly).  As the point of view alternates, the reader learns new information.  This mystery-adventure is a great book and I'm eager to read others by Ms. Mass. I think, if I'm being honest, I might even like it more than Charlie

When I saw the title, A Sock is A Pocket for Your Toes by Elizabeth Garton Scanlon, I immediately thought of Mary Ann Hoberman's, A House is a House for Me, discussed here, and written more than twenty-five years earlier.  Sure enough, it too is a creative look at containers for items, here described as pockets rather than houses.  Here, I definitely prefer the original on the merits alone.  This one has a rhyme scheme I don't particularly like, and the ending is too sickly-sweet for me.

Finally, King Jack and the Dragon by Peter Bentley and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, harkens back to  Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, particularly in the pictures.  I actually love this sweeter, gentler take on a child's imaginative journey, although it lacks many of the psychological elements (acting out, parent-child relationships) that make Where the Wild Things Are truly special and unique. 

It takes a lot of guts to challenge a classic head-on like this.  After all,  Ms. Mass could have made the contest about something else - inventions in general, even - but she chose candy (with its echoes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) for a reason.   But I'm not sure what the reason was. 

It's worth noting, too, that two of these three books are all by established authors/illustrators; the exception is Elizabeth Garton Scanlon, for whom A Sock is A Pocket for Your Toes was her first book.  Would publishers have dismissed the others as derivative if they'd been submitted by unknowns?

Of course, lots of books share themes or even plots. What distinguishes them is language, character development, pacing, and a million other indefinable things.  Intellectual property law distinguishes between works which rely too heavily on the original and those which use it as a jumping off point and are derivative (in a legal, not pejorative sense).  So why do I have a voice in my head saying "the original is always better"?  That's how I feel about movies made from books, too. But is that bias fair? And what if I'd read the second book first? How would I feel then? 

What do you think?  Is the original always better?  What other pairs of original/derivative books can you think of?


  1. Laurel Snyder writes books that are clearly an homage to Edgar Eager's books, which in turn clearly echoed E. Nesbit's stories. The pattern is a family of children find magic and try to use it in their every day lives without interference from adults. They don't feel competitive with each other as companionably sharing a bookshelf. Try _Any Which Wall_.

  2. @Beth: Great suggestions. I have read some of Laurel Snyder's books and long ago read some of E. Nesbit's. I'm not sure I've read any Edgar Eager although I know of them. I didn't make the connection at all. I'm definitely going to read and reread those authors with that in mind!

  3. Another one is "If I Built a Car," by Scott Nash, which is a clear tribute to Dr. Seuss's "If I Ran the Zoo," from the plot arc down to the meter. I most appreciated this when, having read Car a zillion times with my daughter, we finally read Zoo, and she got it immediately. There, my five-year-old just learned about literary allusion!

  4. Whoops, not Scott Nash, Chris van Dusen. I get those Mainers mixed up.