Commentary: Huckleberry Finn

My seven-year-old heard about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at school. I’m not entirely sure how because it’s not like they were reading it in class. He mentioned it in connection with his music teacher. Regardless of how it came up, he knew that it was a book about a boy on a rafting trip and he wanted to read it or for me to read it to him. Since I’m about all books, all the time- I’ve never not read something he’s asked for. (This would be why I read through three narratives about the Titanic last year.)

However, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn gave me pause. Do I commit to exposing a seven-year-old to the full 300+ pages with dialects, running away, child abuse, slurs, and slavery? Do I select an abridged version, but keep the original language? Should I pick an abridged AND “retold” version that is more age appropriate, but would rob the story of its bite and moral wrestling?

I consulted with teacher friends and reading friends and people on the street and the librarian and my spouse. Finally, I decided to read the Classic Starts edition of the book, 41h-3zilpol-_sx288_bo1204203200_but that I would tell him why we were reading that and not the “real” book. He agreed to those terms. We launched into the book on Saturday and finished it Monday night. He couldn’t get enough and was willing to do all kinds of things for more reading time.

Even reading a heavily redacted Huck Finn meant talking with him about slavery, child abuse, kidnapping and ransom, slave and free states, flirting, getting shot, lying, swindling, and the difference between legal and moral. I would by no means consider any of these conversations closed. In fact, I think reading this book just opened up our conversations on most of these issues.

Huck Finn captivated him so thoroughly that it will easily become a go-to reference point for thinking about moral quandaries and how to make decisions. My son has a habit of talking through things to himself as though he is presenting them to an invisible audience or friend. As I read the book, I could see and hear him repeating phrases, pretending to run, calling out for Jim, pretending to hide, and thinking about what was happening in the story.

I really do not recommend the Classic Starts edition because it was full of typos and the retelling of the story was not well-edited for continuity or clarity. Huck, without the full text, comes off as rather passive, which is not his actual characterization in the Twain narrative. There are other abridged retellings and I sought out one of those for Tom Sawyer and for Sherlock Holmes. We will be reading those things next to hold off on reading the full text of Huck for at least a year.

This is commentary and not a review because I would not have selected Huck as a book for my son without him asking. Perhaps we would have gotten to it before high school required it (do they still do that?), but I hadn’t made up my mind about reading the first Harry Potter to him, much less Huckleberry Finn. His questions showed me that he was processing the book in an age-appropriate fashion.

He wanted to know how slaves were different from servants. Was Alaska a free state (now)? What is a duke, a king, and a prince? How could a hairball talk?

We practiced making predictions about what might happen next. We reflected on what we would have done differently. These were fruitful and deep conversations, with lots of laughter, that we had sitting next to each other in my bed or in an overstuffed chair. My spouse tried to get our daughter (age 4) to listen too, but that wasn’t quite so successful.

I don’t know how he heard, but he did. And now we are having the conversations that needed to begin anyway. And his first favorite, non-picture book has been established- one I would never have seen coming.

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