Bored by board books—color primers, shapes, and numbers—which they read with their young children, twin brothers Jack, an associate professor in the department of Writing at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., and Holman, an attorney and former middle school teacher in Vancouver, decided to create their own series for children and adults. After rejecting Jack’s original idea to do Freud for babies, they decided to focus on distilling adult classics like Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice into 12 words and images to launch Cozy Classics.
“We wanted a style that would be fresh. My sister-in-law does needle felting, and it took off from there,” says Holman, referring to the decision to use needle-felted figures to pair with the words. To select the right 12, he adds, “ [Jack and I] talk about the words together. They obviously have to trace the plotline and have a narrative arc and elements that are appropriate for children. But they aren’t sanitized for adults.” When very young kids open a Cozy Classic, Holman says that they see “cute cuddly figures wrapped up in a word primer.” But he and his brother consider their board books a jumping-off place to tell a fuller story to older children.
For Holman, telling a story with the figures makes the books distinctive. Beyond that, he believes that the craft-like quality of the art resonates with the classics better than a slicker illustration. The brothers wanted to avoid computer-generated images of any sort. But the decision to use needle felting to sculpt the characters adds significantly to the time it takes to do each book. Each figure needs between 18 and 25 hours to complete.
Holman originally made all the figures, but Jack helps with them, too. However, Holman photographs them to illustrate the words, either in his studio, where the skies are created naturally by shooting from the window, or outside. In some scenes like the one created for the word “read” in Pride and Prejudice, Jack shoots outdoors. He set up the figure of Elizabeth Bennet reading Mr. Darcy’s letter, after she rejects his proposal, in a park near his home and photographed it at dawn.
Although the brothers’ original publishing contract fell through because of artistic differences, they quickly found support in Simply Read Books, which is based in Vancouver and distributed in the U.S. by Ingram Publisher Services. Holman attended the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s regional meeting last month, and as a result has been invited to do readings in Portland, Ore., and in Moscow, Idaho. The first printing was 10,000 copies each of Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick. The books have already begun garnering good reviews in conjunction with the anniversary of Moby Dick’s publication in England. The Telegraph calls the Cozy Classic edition of Melville’s tale “remarkable.” The Paris Review says, “quite simply, delightful.” But it’s too soon to tell how these comments and similar ones from booksellers at PNBA will translate into sales.
Due out next spring are two more classics, Les Miserables and War and Peace each in 12 words. To distill Tolstoy’s classic, the brothers focused on the love story and just three characters.