Let me be honest: I have not actually read Moby-Dick. But my general sense of the plot is that it’s a depressing story of a man who literally drowns in his desire for revenge. There’s a wooden leg, whale harpooning and only one survivor.
How does someone who has never cracked open the original Melville know all this? It was all terrifyingly depicted through 12 needle-felt illustrations in the Cozy Classics series of board books for babies and toddlers. Let me explain.
There are no smiling cartoon drawings in the Cozy Classics series. Instead, there are photographs of characters and scenes intricately crafted out of felt. Why felt? You got me. But I’m assuming that’s what is supposed to make the images “cozy” and appropriate for children. Don’t let it fool you.
On the cover of Moby Dick is a giant whale, which would be cute and fuzzy except for the fact that its red mouth is open to reveal a row of pointed teeth. One of the dozen words in the book is “mad,” accompanied by a fierce frowning Captain Ahab grasping his harpoon. The book ends with Ishmael clinging to a coffin as he floats in the water.
I thought all this would scare the bejeezus out of my 21-month-old daughter because it sure creeped the heck out of me. Instead, it has become one of her favorite bedtime stories. I can’t really explain why she likes it, any more than I can tell you why she has a meltdown when I ask her to put on her jacket. She just does, so I roll with it and try to accept all the ways in which this book is strange.
After flipping through it night after night, I have come to admire the attention to detail in the illustrations. That spray of water coming out of Moby Dick’s blowhole, represented by a wisp of blurry white felt? Nice touch. On the other hand, I can’t help but think some people have waaaaay too much time on their hands.
The meanings of some words in the book are a little abstract. For example, “sail” is chosen for a picture of the Pequod, but “boat” or “ship” might be a more concrete concept for young minds. I’m also a little worried that my kid will think that every “leg” must be of the wooden peg variety.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a BabyLit version of Moby Dick that forgoes the sturm and drang to focus on ocean vocabulary. In that book, the whale has what looks like freckles, along with a big smile on his face, and he’s surrounded by his friends, a happy octopus and scampering sea horse! It’s a sanitized version of what I now know is a wrenching story — and my toddler hasn’t given it a second glance.
This is the first in a regular series where we will review what we’re reading with our kids.
Mui is a reporter for the business section at The Post.