A Hippo Banquet

Adapting Writers More Read About than Read

Mary KingsleyMary Kingsley, the Victorian scientific explorer and writer, is the subject of many Key Stage 2 topics. Her derring-do makes for great biographical writing. But her gutsiness and charm don’t usually come through unless you read her own words. I don’t think anyone does. Her writing is just a bit too tricky for most at KS2.

I am ambivalent about children’s adaptations of classic fiction. Characterisation and narrative complexity do not come out of the process well. For many stories, children should wait until they are old enough to enjoy it for themselves.

Nonfiction works much better. It is possible to keep the character of the text and preserve the principal ideas while simplifying just enough. Mary Kingsley is a writer we can read and not just read about.

Adapting texts

Adapting texts is an enjoyable task. There is a wonderful world of neglected scientific literature. A gentle, respectful edit makes these texts accessible to young readers and useful to teachers. To illustrate the process, I have selected an extract by Mary Kingsley.

 

A Hippo Banquet

(Original Text)

Mary Kingsley stampIt was a wonderfully lovely quiet night with no light save that from the stars.  One immense planet shone pre-eminent in the purple sky, throwing a golden path down on to the still waters.  Quantities of big fish sprung out of the water, their glistening silver-white scales flashing so that they look like slashing swords.  Some bird was making a long, low boom-booming sound away on the forest shore.  I paddled leisurely across the lake to the shore on the right, and seeing crawling on the ground some large glow-worms, drove the canoe on to the bank among some hippo grass, and got out to get them. While engaged on this hunt I felt the earth quiver under my feet, and heard a soft big soughing sound, and looking round saw I had dropped in on a hippo banquet.  I made out five of the immense brutes round me, so I softly returned to the canoe and shoved off, stealing along the bank, paddling under water, until I deemed it safe to run out across the lake for my island.  I reached the other end of it to that on which the village is situated; and finding a miniature rocky bay with a soft patch of sand and no hippo grass, the incidents of the Fan hut suggested the advisability of a bath.  Moreover, there was no china collection in that hut, and it would be a long time before I got another chance, so I go ashore again, and, carefully investigating the neighbourhood to make certain there was no human habitation near, I then indulged in a wash in peace.  Drying one’s self on one’s cummerbund is not pure joy, but it can be done when you put your mind to it.

Mary Kingsley – Travels in West Africa (1897)

Although it is ungenerous to paste this extract into a text analyser, statistically it is suitable for a seventeen year old. What a shame. For Victorian texts, it is often the sentence length that throws a modern reader: the middle section of this text contains some immense sentences. They are gorgeous and skilful, but raise the reading age by several years.

Cutting sentences in half and removing some vocabulary that I felt didn’t damage the text too much produced abridged version 1:

A Hippo Banquet

It was a wonderfully lovely quiet night with no light save that from the stars.  One immense planet shone in the purple sky, throwing a golden path down on to the still waters. Fish sprung out of the water, their glistening silver-white scales flashing like slashing swords. A bird was making a long, low boom-booming sound on the forest shore. I paddled leisurely across the lake to the shore on the right, and saw some large glow-worms crawling on the ground. I drove the canoe on to the bank among some hippo grass and got out to get them. While hunting the glow-worms, I felt the earth quiver under my feet, and heard a soft big soughing sound. Looking round I saw that I had dropped in on a hippo banquet.  I made out five of the immense brutes round me, so I softly returned to the canoe and shoved off, stealing along the bank until I deemed it safe to run out across the lake.  I found a miniature rocky bay with a soft patch of sand suggesting the possibility of a bath. Investigating to make certain there was no human habitation near, I indulged in a wash in peace.  Drying one’s self on one’s cummerbund is not pure joy, but it can be done when you put your mind to it.

Mary Kingsley – Travels in West Africa (1897)

This first cut is simple enough, removing 70 of the 293 words and dividing longer sentences. The text analyser now puts the reading age at 12.

The second edit is more painful. Cutting feels justified, but changing words and phrases takes care. The aim is to keep the style but reduce the difficulty. I have made the fewest changes possible. I have explained some of my decisions below:

The phrase, “flashing like slashing swords” is a gift to the KS2 teacher: a rhyme; alliteration and simile all in one.

I have struggled with the glow worm sentences. It isn’t immediately clear whether Mary is going ashore to get the glow worms or the hippo grass. It’s come about because I cut the original sentence in two. Instead, I have dodged and used the word “investigate.” The next time I use this text in class, I hope to solve this more elegantly.

Then there is the word “soughing.” A gorgeous onomatopoeia, its popularity peaked at the time of Kingsley’s book. It belongs to its time and belongs in the text. Google has a neat resource showing the popularity of words over time. Just google the word and click on “translation, word origin, and more definitions.” A graph, like the one below, will appear.

soughing

(Google analysis of the word ‘soughing’)

The final line captures so much of Kingsley, that it must stay. However, most young readers would struggle with the line preceding it. I have adapted it to smooth the path. The final edit is below.

Abridged version 2:

A Hippo Banquet

Mary-KingsleyIt was a wonderfully lovely quiet night with no light save that from the stars.  One immense planet shone in the purple sky, throwing a golden path down on to the still waters. Fish sprung out of the water, their glistening silver-white scales flashing like slashing swords. A bird was making a long, low boom-booming sound on the forest shore. I paddled leisurely across the lake to the shore on the right, and saw some large glow-worms crawling on the ground. I drove the canoe on to the bank among some hippo grass and got out to investigate. While hunting the glow-worms, I felt the earth quiver under my feet, and heard a soft big soughing sound. Looking round I saw that I had dropped in on a hippo banquet.  I made out five of the immense brutes round me, so I softly returned to the canoe and shoved off, stealing along the bank until I deemed it safe to run out across the lake.  I found a small rocky bay with a soft patch of sand: a perfect spot for a bath. I enjoyed a wash in peace.  Drying one’s self on one’s cummerbund is not pure joy, but it can be done when you put your mind to it.

Mary Kingsley – Travels in West Africa (1897)

It is now suitable, statistically, for 11 year olds. I believe I have kept to the style of the original, cutting, dividing and only occasionally replacing. The original is a joy, but if the difference between reading it and not reading it is an honest and gentle edit, I am happy.

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2 thoughts on “A Hippo Banquet

  1. Pingback: Of The Cells and Pores of Frothy Bodies | Reading for Learning

  2. Pingback: Teaching Reading Comprehension – Which Texts Work? | Reading for Learning

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