Graphic adaptations have been around since the days of the Classics Illustrated comics of the 1940s and 1950s. To this day, straightforward retellings of public domain favorites continue to be standard fare on school and library shelves, and some publishers have changed up the format a bit: Manga Classics creates close adaptations of classic works drawn in a manga style, while Eureka Productions’ Graphic Classics are anthologies of brief comics based on poems and short stories.

What’s changing now is that graphic adaptations are becoming a larger part of the consumer market. The middle grade graphic novel boom of the past several years has publishers looking at new ways to tell old stories, and two trends have emerged: faithful adaptations of backlist books, particularly series, along with imaginative reinventions of classics in the public domain.

Strict Adaptations: Coloring Between the Lines

Publishers who do straightforward adaptations of popular prose books usually start with proven titles from their own backlist. For instance, next spring Simon & Schuster is adapting the first volume of Stuart Gibbs’s Spy School; the nine-volume prose series has sold about three million copies in all formats. An adaptation can also bring new attention to an older book; Philomel’s adaptation of Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray, due out this October, marks the 10th anniversary of the novel’s publication and comes three years after the release of the movie based on it, Ashes in the Snow.

The key to this type of adaptation is the strength of the source material. “We really look at the performance of the hardcover, how widely popular is the book,” said Stephanie Lurie, editorial director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney Hyperion. “Doing a graphic novel is a way to extend the book’s life, maybe make it more appropriate to a younger audience, or extend it to kids who prefer the visual format over pure text.” Hyperion’s first adaptation was Eoin Coifer’s Artemis Fowl, in 2007; the 2021 list includes graphic adaptations of Ned Vizzini’s Be More Chill and Alexandra Bracken’s Brightly Woven, as well as Evil Thing: A Villains Graphic Novel, based on the books by Serena Valentino. “The Rick Riordan Presents adaptations are being assigned to illustrators of the same culture that the book is presenting,” Lurie noted. Two adaptations of that line are slated for 2022: Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time and Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.

In addition to solid sales, the original also has to lend itself to visual presentation. “We do adaptations for books that have resonated with so many readers, have become classics in their own right, and where the visual format will bring a new layer of storytelling for fans and new readers alike,” said Emilia Rhodes, editorial director of Clarion Books and Etch. Their adaptations include Lois Lowry’s The Giver, published in 2020, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, slated for this November. The 2022 list includes Kwame Alexander’s Booked, sequel to the Newbery-winning The Crossover (which was adapted in 2019), and Mary Downing Hahn’s Took. “All of these books have an audience that has embraced them for years, and [it was] exciting to us and the creators to see them in a new format,” Rhodes said. “To see the intense action of Graceling unfold, or the verse of The Crossover take on new life in color on the page, feels like discovering the magic of these books all over again.”

The visual aspect was also important to Simon & Schuster’s decision to bring back James and Deborah Howe’s 1979 kids’ book Bunnicula as a graphic novel, set for release in August 2022. “There is so much for an illustrator to dive into, both in what is happening narratively and what Harold and Chester are imagining is happening,” said Justin Chanda, senior v-p and publisher at Simon & Schuster Children’s Trade. “To see all of that come to visual life is such a treat.”

Often the original author collaborates with the adapter and the artist (who may or may not be the same person). Jennifer L. Holm’s Turtle in Paradise (Random House Graphic, June 2021) is set in Key West in the 1930s, so when adapter and artist Savanna Ganucheau needed visual information beyond what was in the book, Holm could help out with her own research materials. The two worked closely throughout the adaptation, but Holm said, “Honestly, Savanna really took the lead and ran with it. In a sense, I was too ‘close’ to the original material and she had a clear-eyed view of the bigger story beats.”

A Series of Fortunate Events

Series are a native format for comics, and many publishers see advantages to doing graphic adaptations of prose series as well. David Saylor, editor-in-chief of the Scholastic graphic novel imprint Graphix, likened series adaptations to the Marvel and DC strategy of making the most of their popular characters. “What I wanted to do at Graphix was capitalize on the incredible characters and prose series we have done over the years,” he said. “You want that name recognition, the love of people who have grown up with the series, love from booksellers who know the series.”

In fact, the second graphic novel that Graphix published (after Jeff Smith’s Bone) was The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy’s Great Idea, the first of a series that continues to make the graphic novel bestseller lists, even with several different adaptors. Graphix also publishes the spinoff series Baby-Sitters Little Sister, as well as adaptations of Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire, Lauren Tarshis’s I Survived…, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs, and starting in September, the Adventures of the Bailey School Kids.

Series from the 1980s and 1990s seem to be particularly popular with publishers. In addition to the Baby-Sitters Club, the Bailey School Kids, and Bunnicula, another series of the same vintage hit bookstore shelves this year: Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House, from Random House Books for Young Readers.

Saylor said this is because the series are familiar to both parents and booksellers. “I can’t stress how much the name recognition helps,” he said. “Launching a new series is very, very hard, because no one knows what it is, but when you have something that has as much nostalgia or fondness as the Bailey School Kids or the Baby-Sitters Club, it’s easier for people to wrap their heads around. This is why the ’80s and ’90s are ripe for picking with series.”

“I don’t think it is so much the era as it is these [older series] are now trusted ‘brands,’” Chanda said. “The stories stand the test of time. The brands have generational appeal, and have become core backlist. Graphic novel and manga’s growing popularity allows us to present these tried-and-true and trusted stories in a new way.”

The adaptations also allow the publishers to update the stories a bit. “We are generally faithful to the text unless something needs to be modernized,” Saylor said. “In the Baby-Sitters Club, Stacey is diabetic and we had to update the information and treatment—how she manages it is very different now.” And Chanda said that for Bunnicula, they had to eliminate a gag about Harold, the dog, eating chocolate, which is now regarded as toxic to dogs. “It was important to keep up with the science there,” he said.

Classics Illuminated: New Takes on Old Stories

Putting a modern spin on a classic is not a new idea, and it’s one that has worked well in films such as West Side Story and Clueless. This strategy has a number of things going for it: the source material is usually in the public domain, the underlying stories are often familiar to the reader, and the author usually isn’t around to complain.

The trick with such adaptations is keeping the essence of the story while updating the incidentals. In The Secret Garden on 81st Street (Little, Brown, 2021), writer Ivy Noelle Weir and artist Amber Padilla relocated Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic The Secret Garden from the Yorkshire moors to New York City and set it in the present day, but they kept the basics firmly in place. “At its heart, The Secret Garden is kind of a story about grief and grieving,” Weir said. “Mary, Lord Craven, Colin, they’ve all lost something and they’re sort of feeling their way through how to live, and the only way they are able to grow through it is with care and compassion. I felt that was the core of the work and something I wanted to preserve.”

Weir also felt that the sense of wonder at the natural world was essential to the book. And crucially, she looked at Colin’s problems through a modern lens: “I particularly think exploring Colin’s storyline from the perspective of mental health and living with panic disorder—as opposed to the sort of vague Victorian malaise he suffers in the original work—was a needed and valuable change,” she said. “I think the freedom of the adaptation gave me a chance to take some of the things that are timeless about the work and make them more relatable for kids today.”

The Secret Garden on 81st Street is the second of LBYR’s graphic adaptations; the first one, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (2019) tapped into one of the most popular sources for adaptations: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. That adaptation, by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo, re-imagined the Marches as a blended interracial family living in modern-day Brooklyn. Last year, HarperCollins also brought the classic novel into the 21st century with Jo: An Adaptation of Little Women (Sort Of) by Kathleen Gros. These two adaptations kept many of the familiar plot twists but made two changes: In both of the new versions, Beth survives, and Jo is gay.

Leigh Dragoon went in a completely different direction with her Little Women adaptation. Little Witches: Magic in Concord (Oni Press, 2020), which kept the Civil War-era setting but turned the Marches into witches and Mr. Laurence into an African American witch hunter. Nonetheless, she said, she kept the parts she remembered from reading the book as a child. “I feel they were emotional lodestones,” she said. “Everyone remembers where they were when Amy burned Jo’s book!” Jo’s struggles with her temper also resonated with her, especially when Marmee confesses that she had the same problem when she was younger. And of course, Laurie continues to be the counterpoint to Jo. “They are two sides of the same person,” she said, “which is why they are a horrible couple.” Most important of all, though, is the atmosphere of the book. “Little Women is set in a universe where the family always has each other’s back and focuses on creating a safe space in the world, and you can read it and trust that they will be okay,” she said.

One notable exception to this trend is The Great Gatsby, which recently came into the public domain and has had not one but two graphic adaptations in the past two years. Candlewick describes its adaptation, by K. Woodman-Maynard, as “faithful yet modern,” pairing excerpts from the original with dreamlike pastel artwork, while the version published by Scribner in 2020, adapted by Fred Fordham and artist Aya Morton, condenses the text and accompanies it with straightforward illustrations. The two books show how even a straightforward adaptation can vary with different adaptors.

With the greater acceptance of graphic novels by schools and libraries, the old complaint that readers will prefer the (presumably easier) graphic novel to the original has not cropped up like it used to. In fact, quite the contrary seems to be true. “I tend to think that kids are like adults: if they like something, they want all the versions,” Saylor said. “Adaptations don’t necessarily replace the prose books at all. If you like the prose book, you will want the graphic novel and the streaming series.”

This has proved true with manga, Saylor pointed out, as manga sales have boomed because so many people were watching anime during the pandemic. “As we have seen with the Baby-Sitters Club, the prose books are going strong,” he said. “In fact, the graphic novels reinvigorated the whole brand. One doesn’t replace the other. It’s expanding on characters and series that are already beloved in some way.”