Three years ago, Erin Nelsen Parekh found reading bedtime stories to her one-year-old son mind-numbing. Like many parents, she could recite each of her son’s books from memory. Unlike many parents, Parekh is a copyeditor and editor who decided to do something about it; she launched Shakespeare for Babies, a series of children's books based on writings by the Bard.
It was an ambitious decision, but one Parekh, who was a voracious reader as a child, says was completely within her character. “I don’t think anyone who knew me when I was six would be at all surprised at what I’ve ended up doing,” she says.
Working with illustrator Mehrdokht Amini, Parekh set up a Kickstarter page and raised enough money to cover the production of the first book, Behowl the Moon, An Ageless Story from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, released in 2017. A second Kickstarter campaign funded the most recent title, released earlier this month, The Wild Waves Whist: An Ageless Story from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Parekh’s son is four years old now and she has a two-year-old daughter as well. The two Shakespeare for Babies books are among their bedtime favorites (they call them the Mama books).
Of course, neither book recounts the entire story. These are board books and only 21 pages long, after all. Instead, each takes a passage from the play and adds colorful artwork to create a mini-story, to capture a self-contained moment.
Parekh combed through dozens of works searching for sections with the right combination of rhyming, metered, and easy to dramatize words. She wanted passages that would be interesting to babies and toddlers, yes, but also to parents. (Even after repeated readings, chances are parents aren’t going to find Shakespeare mind-numbing.)
Once she found the passages, she kept them intact.
“I haven’t changed one word from the selections I chose,” Parekh tells us. “In both books, I’ve taken two medium-length speeches from [a] major character ... and just sort of set them next to each other.”
“The biggest choices I’ve had to make as far as editing are punctuation-based. Do I follow Norton with the semicolon or pick up the comma from the Folger?”
Parekh reminds us that Shakespeare was incredibly good at putting words together so that they trip off the tongue, with layers and layers of meaning. The sounds and rhythms of his work, she says, naturally appeal to the ear so his work requires no editing or adaptation, even when the audience is babies and toddlers.
Most of us first encounter Shakespeare in middle school, as written text. That can be deadly dull, says Parekh. And intimidating. Hearing Shakespeare as a toddler, even if it’s just a tiny bit, can inoculate youngsters against the fear of weird, you’re-supposed-to-be-impressed-with-this-classic writing.
“It’s hard to be scared of a baby book,” she says.
And, she suggests, parents shouldn’t just read these books to their children; they should perform them. Ham it up, she says. Be loud. Go big. “They’re called plays for a reason.”
Erin Nelsen Parekh, March 23. Free. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet. 713-523-0701. More info at brazosbookstore.com.