OLEAN, NY – They say listening to classical music in the womb raises the IQ of a child, but what about reading the classics? Jack and Holman Wang thought it was worth a shot.
The brothers developed Cozy Classics, an artistic book collection based on classic literature but written for children.
“I was the one who came up with the idea of abridging classics for babies” Jack Wang told his audience at the Olean Public Library in late April. “When I shared the idea with my brother, Holman loved it.”
The first challenge of turning classics like “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” into literature for infants was illustration, according to Wang.
“We wanted to do something original that would jibe with the classics,” Wang explained.
The brothers’ goal was original illustrations without using computer-animated photos, and so the idea for needle-felted characters came to mind.
“Needle felting is basically sculpting with wool” said Wang, who lives in Ithaca but is originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, where his brother still lives. “We stab the wool repeatedly with a barbed needle to untangle the fibers of the wool, then we shape the wool around a wire frame.”
Wang, who had spoken at the Cuba Circulating Library the same day, stressed the importance of using the wire frame because it allows him and Holman Wang to shape and re-shape the characters for different scenes.
Another challenge for the Wang brothers? Keeping the language as simple as possible — one word per page.
“We start by choosing words that we think will give the best sense of the main storyline. Our motto is ‘No subplots,’ ” Jack Wang said.
With one word per page, the word needed to capture a broad image of each scene in the story. And, Wang added, they also set the goal of picking words that are fun as well as educational – such as onomatopoeias.
“We will often incorporate opposites into our stories” said Wang. “For example, one page might say the word ‘nice’ and the next page will say the word ‘mean.’ ”
Once the Cozy Classics gained popularity, the Wang brothers wanted a way to expand their reach and test their skills. In 2013, the brothers were in Italy displaying their artwork in the Illustrators Exhibition at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.
“We struck up a conversation with a rep at Chronicle Books,” a San Francisco-based American book publisher, “who was kind enough to take some of our books back with him to San Francisco to show the head of their children’s division,” Wang told his audience. “When Chronicle asked us what other ideas we had for abridging classics, ‘Star Wars’ was our first answer.”
Before the brothers could begin production of the “Star Wars” books, they had to have licensing from Lucasfilm. Once they received approval, they realized converting “Star Wars” presented them with new challenges with scene setup and photography.
“One new technique we used was a system of removable heads because of so many different costumes worn by Luke Skywalker,” Wang said.
The brothers’ commitment to using all-natural shots meant they travelled long distances to get the proper scenery.
“For the forest scenes on Endor, we shot in Vancouver, and the desert scenes on Tatooine were shot in parts of Arizona and California,” Wang said.
Even without travel, Wang said the detail-oriented books are time consuming.
“It takes twenty to thirty hours to complete a single figure,” he said. “If a scene requires a studio set, it can take days to build while lighting and photography generally takes three to five hours.”
Along with the Bologna Children’s Book Fiar, the Wang brothers’ work has been in exhibitions at the Museum of American Illustration in New York City and the National Museum of Play in Rochester, among other places.
Cozy Classics plan to release the Wang brothers’ version of the “The Nutcracker” in fall 2016, followed by “The Wizard of Oz” in spring 2017.
For more information on the series, visit http://www.mycozyclassics.com.