From Classic to Graphic: Making Literature More Accessible for Younger Audiences

Chelsea Hill

Image: Chelsea Hill.

As an avid reader, I have always had a peripheral interest in reading Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. I’m not sure if this is because of the cultural and literary significance of Anne’s writing, my interest in World War II, or because my maternal grandparents were born and lived in Holland before immigrating to Canada in 1958. Realistically, it is probably a combination of all three. I became even more interested in this text in late 2015 when, while helping clean my Oma and Opa’s apartment, I found a tattered copy of The Diary of a Young Girl. Although I knew that my Oma and Opa grew up during the war and experienced both Holland’s occupation by Germany in 1940 and its liberation by Allied forces in 1945, it had never fully occurred to me that they were sharing a very similar geographic, political, and temporal environment with Anne. As my Oma and Opa were born in 1924 and 1926, respectively, and Anne was born in 1929, only a few years separated them.

Despite these exciting connections and my existing interest in Anne’s writing, I struggled to make my way through The Diary of a Young Girl for years. I can’t count how many times I picked up my Oma’s copy of the text before inevitably putting it down. It was only recently, after finding a graphic novel adaptation of Anne’s diary and becoming curious about how graphic adaptations interpret their source text, that I was finally able to make my way through it. While I’m pleased to have finally completed The Diary of a Young Girl and am now able to think about it critically, I have to admit that it wasn’t as exciting as I had expected it to be. The book as a whole is complex, funny, and heartbreaking. Yet, entry by entry, page by page, the text can be quite tedious. Even with all the qualities that made this text appealing to me as an individual and as a scholar, it was a book I struggled with throughout the reading processes. How inaccessible might this text then be to more inexperienced readers or those without familial connections to Holland, an interest in this historical period, or a passion for literature? I can imagine that, despite the importance of this text in Western culture, it may now exist beyond the interest of young readers in particular.

Figure 1. Image: Chelsea Hill.

How does Ari Folman and David Polonsky’s 2018 adaptation, Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, play into this literary, cultural, and educational context? According to Folman in an interview with Teen Vogue, the goal of the adaptation was to “portray the entire Anne Frank story, but adapted to today’s children” (Webster). Folman and Polonsky’s commitment to producing a fresh look at Anne’s story while maintaining the authenticity of the original text is evident, as this adaptation demonstrates an intricate blend between new illustrations and speech bubbles with direct quotations from Anne’s diary. Although these three elements exist in harmony throughout much of the text, there are occasionally pages filled with long passages of Anne’s writing with few illustrations (see figure 1). This further highlights Folman and Polonsky’s goal to produce an authentic adaptation. Moreover, Polonsky told Teen Vogue “we are not trying to pretend to be a 12-year-old girl in hiding in Holland. That wouldn’t be sincere; we are not trying to speak through her voice, we just cannot do that. But what we can do is adopt her approach” (Webster).

Figure 2. Image: Chelsea Hill.

Having read this graphic novel directly after reading The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition, I believe that Folman and Polonsky did an exceptional job at remaining true to Anne’s voice and experiences while creating an accessible entry point to her story. To be successful in maintaining Anne’s authenticity is significant since this graphic adaptation has approximately half as many pages as Anne’s diary and many of these pages are filled with illustrations. Even so, the visual medium allows complicated themes originally developing throughout the entirety of Anne’s diary to be encompassed in a few panels. This is demonstrated on page 28, where Anne’s struggle to accept the perfection of her older sister Margot is made visual, occurring on a single page (see figure 2).

Still, not all readers have appreciated Folman and Polonsky’s approach. According to Ruth Franklin’s review of the graphic novel in The New York Times, while the text has undeniable value in introducing new and younger audiences to the story of Anne Frank and the Holocaust, this adaptation “does a disservice to the remarkable writer at its center” (Franklin). This is because, according to Franklin, this graphic adaptation does a poor job at highlighting the literary and artistic achievements of Anne, instead portraying her as a “schoolgirl, a friend, a sister, a girlfriend and a reluctantly obedient daughter” whose private diary was “hastily scribbled” (Franklin). Although it is true that the tone of this graphic adaptation is inevitably changed from Anne’s original diary, I would argue that this does not diminish its value or its ability to introduce Anne’s story to new audiences. I concede that Anne’s literary achievements may be downplayed simply by the nature of such a visual form. However, this adaptation works to further humanize Anne and her companions as well as illustrate the beauty found in the Secret Annex despite the horrific crimes occurring outside their hidden home.

Despite such criticisms, it is important to consider the ability of graphic novels to introduce classic literary texts to new and more diverse readers. After all, numerous studies have demonstrated a correlation between children reading graphic novels and increased literacy (Crowley 140). By engaging readers in different ways through the combination of both visual and textual information, graphic novels can ultimately encourage readers to conduct their own research or read the source text. Overwhelmingly positive experiences are illustrated in many reviews, both formal and informal, across the internet, where parents and readers praise Folman and Polonsky’s graphic adaptation as a fresh, engaging, visually appealing, and authentic version of The Diary of a Young Girl.

Beyond Folman and Polonsky’s adaptation of Anne’s diary, many graphic adaptations of classic literary texts are immensely popular. For example, instead of reaching for what could be considered dense and inaccessible texts for some modern readers, readers can interact with graphic adaptations of the Book of Genesis, Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, among countless others. Therefore, despite criticisms that it can be difficult for graphic adaptations to offer authentic reinterpretations of its source text, it is evident that such adaptations are capable of reaching and engaging diverse readers around the world through intricate interactions between text and image.

Works Cited

Crowley, Joel. “Graphic Novels in the School Library: Using Graphic Novels to Encourage Reluctant Readers and Improve Literacy.” School Librarian, vol. 63, no. 3, 2015, pp. 140-2. Gale Academic OneFile Select, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A431446127/EAIM?u=usaskmain&sid=EAIM&xid=6f01519b.

Franklin, Ruth. “Anne Frank’s Diary, in Graphic Form, Reveals Its Humor.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/books/review/anne-franks-diary-in-graphic-form-reveals-its-humor.html. Accessed 27 Feb 2021.

Webster, Emma Sarran. “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation Reimagines the Young Girl’s Story as a Stunning Graphic Novel.” Teen Vogue, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/anne-frank-diary-graphic-novel. Accessed 27 Feb 2021.

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