Classics Illustrated

In the 1950s and the 1960s, there was always a desire among middle class parents not just to encourage their children to read, but to read what people called at the time “classic books”, books which might improve you. One way of luring children to, mainly, 19th century masterpieces, was to introduce them to a very large collection of such books for sale, an act which would encourage children, hopefully, to buy more and more from the “approved” library.

When I was a child, I had a very small collection of “Olive Classics”, dark green books with a kind of faux-leather cover, and a cardboard mini-box to hold them in. I still have them all, and I was looking at them the other day. I think I read the lot, although this may be more a reflection of the small number of books I possessed than the quality of the works in question:

I bought them based on whether or not I had seen the film (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), whether I had heard of the book and thought it was a good one (Ivanhoe) and if my parents just bought it for me as a stocking filler at Christmas (South with Scott). I also had Ben-Hur (tedious and over long), Allan Quartermain (a fabulous book):

Another way to read books which would be good for you were the magazines entitled “Classics Illustrated”. These were a series of American comic books which told the stories in pictures with very few printed words, usually just a caption. I had one or two of these as well, and certainly read them all avidly. It was marvellous to see pictures bringing books to life, although, if truth be told, the standard of the artworks was very, very low. Let’s compare them with “Eagle” comic. “War of the Worlds is really quite crude, whether it is the cover:

or the inside, where there seems to have been a problem with the printing;

Here’s “Eagle”, a weekly comic:

I can remember owning relatively few Classics Illustrated. There was “White Fang” which I really enjoyed. It was a “Ripping Yarn”, well told:

And then there was “Black Arrow” which I had never heard of, found really unexciting and I couldn’t understand the plot, anyway. The two I liked best were technically not Classics Illustrated, but, in one case, a “Special Issue”. This was a one-off publication about “The Royal Canadian Mounted Police”, which I loved. I particularly liked the fact that they were originally the “North West Mounted Police”:

What a wonderful cover!  One thing I did like especially was the dog on page 54 which looks as daft as a brush:

And I also fully endorsed, at the tender age of 11, the largely wise approach of the Canadians to their own First Nation communities.

The magazine which I liked even more was one of the “Classics Illustrated World Around Us” special series which was called “The Crusades”. I was intrigued by one particular sentence which said, roughly:

“Things took a turn for the worse when, in IIII, the king decided to…..”

At the age of eight or nine, I just could not work out what “IIII” meant. It  never occurred to me that it was a date.

Overall, I wish I had had quite a few more Classics Illustrated than I did.  I would have liked to have had a chance to read “Alice in Wonderland” or “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, or perhaps even “Gulliver’s Travels”:

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And don’t forget………….



Filed under Africa, Canada, History, Literature, military, Science, Writing

20 responses to “Classics Illustrated

  1. GP

    A rather nice way to learn and spark some imagination in the children.

    • Yes, it is. and such comics as “Classics Illustrated” also come with a guarantee, of sorts, that none of them will contain unsavoury material or things that will frighten young children. It would be interesting to know how many youngsters went on to read the real book after sampling the comic book version. My only one was “White Fang” which I found rather slow going in its original version, with pretty much the same verdict for “Call of the Wild”.
      Many 16-18 year old students in England, by the way, attempt their English Literature exams on the basis of watching the film, which is almost frighteningly not recommended!

  2. Chris Waller

    My dad used to subscribe to a book club. I don’t remember its name but the books were bound either in dark blue or deep red leatherette embossed in gold. I think they were more for show than anything; I never saw my dad ever reading them. We had a small collection of ‘the classics’ including The Iliad, the Odyssey and The Severn Pillars of Wisdom. I was absolutely entranced by The Odyssey. They are the reason I could read before I started school. It’s sad that most homes these days seem to have a gigantic television but a complete absence of books.

    • My Dad used to subscribe to Heron Books which came in either red or blue imitation leather with gold type print, so it sounds as if they were the same publishers as your Dad’s.
      My Dad had quite a few of the classics in blue, but they are so new looking that he cannot really have read them. On the contrary, his red copies of Charles Dickens have some very battered volumes such as Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. Others, again, he has apparently not touched. He left them all to me in his will, because he knew that I had read all of Dickens’ novels, but I omitted to tell him that I found many of them extremely boring, especially Bleak House, Martin Chuzzlewit and so on.

  3. The Classics Illustrated did make a difference in bringing the story to life. As an avid reader, I introduced my sons to the popular classics for boys which they enjoyed. Sadly, they no longer read books. The Internet, they tell me, has lots to read on any subject of interest.

    • Well, they are right about the Internet, but books still have a great deal to offer. One of my pet subjects is Bigfoot, and the Internet has a lot about it, although the vast majority is bilge. Separating that 80% rubbish from the 20% serious thinking is very difficult. Books, though, are a lot more difficult to fake because they have to fill 200 pages and not just one computer screen. I can also consult previous scientists and look at their views, something the Internet is very weak on. It only deals with the here and now, and 20-30 years ago is forgotten ancient history.

  4. I would like to read that one about the Crusades and fact check it for historical accuracy.

    • Well, here’s your big chance! If you go to ebay and search for
      “Classics Illustrated World Around Us”,
      you’ll find three copies of it for sale, two of which are in the UK. There is also a PC DVD Rom with it, but make sure that you can play it on your computer. You may have to download software but that’s not difficult. The official details of the magazine are that it’s in the series “Classics Illustrated” “The World Around Us” and it’s No 16.
      It’s an American magazine so I wouldn’t expect any grotesque errors in the historical accuracy, given that it was written in 1955.

  5. I presume you have kept these examples John which is a wonderful reminder of your childhood. We had a lot of children’s books and the usual Encyclopaedia Brittanica, along with atlases and other non-fiction. The ‘classics’ I’m afraid eluded me.

    • Well, if they eluded you, you were very lucky in many ways. There’s a really big difference between watching the film or reading the story in comic book form and the truth of 500+ boring pages of Charles Dickens or Sir Walter Scott. I think the secret is, once you have a choice, only to read what you want to and what you like. I’ve got quite a few books from charity shops and reduced price book dealers, but if I start a book and then don’t like it, it’s back to Oxfam pretty quickly. Overall, any reading is good, particularly for children.

      • I agree totally John. We have a small bookshop a few minutes walk from here, I’m always in there browsing for a good book, any that prove to be not to my liking are put in the charity box!

  6. Thank you for sharing!!.. I liked reading the classics as I were growing up, it fed the imagination and no doubt gave me the incentive to overcome obstacles… I remember when I were very young and I would sit in my bedroom and be another Lancelot and save the world… 🙂

    Those were the days, my friend
    We thought they’d never end
    We’d sing and dance forever and a day
    We’d live the life we choose
    We’d fight and never lose
    For we were young and sure to have our way
    (Mary Hopkin)

    Until we meet again..
    May peace and plenty bless your world
    with joy that long endures.
    May all life’s passing seasons
    bring the best to you and yours!
    (Irish Saying)

    • Good old Lancelot! There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. With all that armour, he was pretty much Superman in a tin!
      Mary Hopkin’s song, by the way, was pretty much guaranteed to be a hit. It used a very old Russian melody that is extremely difficult to get out of your head and every Russian knows it. There’s a very dramatic version at

  7. So many wonderful books. I liked White Fang. Books were such a wonderful part of life, they are even now:)

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