Ask parents to come up with things that make their children cringe, and you will have enough material to fill an entire 32-volume Encyclopædia Britannica set. Such a list would likely include the ever unpopular liver and onions, green vegetables, romantic movies and, without question, big, thick, heavy hardcover books.

It doesn’t matter if your child likes to read, or would rather watch paint dry on a hot summer’s day. The task of consuming so many words at one sitting would make most school-aged children tremble in their boots. That is why some publishing houses have released adaptations of classic books and children’s fables. An adaptation isn’t supposed to replace great literature, but rather provide a lighter introduction to help kids enjoy reading the story – and encourage them to eventually read the real thing.

The most unique adaptations were concocted by Classics Illustrated. Started by Albert Lewis Kanter in 1941, the goal was to intrigue young readers by combining works of literary giants like William Shakespeare, Jules Verne and Charles Dickens with bright, colourful illustrations in comic book form.  Kanter always ensured his comic books were properly adapted from the original text. And he hired talented artists such as Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible, Hi and Lois), Jack Kirby (Marvel Comics), Angelo Torres (Mad), and portrait painter Everett Raymond Kinstler.

For the next 30 years, Classics Illustrated – along with its sister lines, Classics Illustrated Junior and The World Around Us – produced hundreds of wonderful adaptations of great literature, fairy tales and folk stories. There were also 16 special issues of important world and historical events, including The Story of Jesus (1955) and The Ten Commandments (1956), which are still regarded as two of the finest adaptations of Biblical stories ever produced.

In the introduction to The Story of Jesus, William B. Jones, Jr., author of Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History, discussed the time and care spent on this book. As he noted, Kanter “decided to commission a biography on Jesus based strictly on the Four Gospels. It was important to him, as a man who cherished his Jewish faith and heritage, that the Classics Illustrated treatment be reverent toward the subject and respectful of the multiple Christian theological traditions.” This would be no small feat, but the publisher was up to the task. His managing editor, Meyer A. Kaplan, hired an African-American former missionary, Lorenz Graham, to script a faithful adaptation to the Authorized King James Version of the Bible. The legendary artist Alex A. Blum provided the illustrations. Meanwhile, Classics Illustrated received the endorsements of various Christian leaders. Among them was Christian Herald editor Daniel A. Poling, who glowingly said the comic book “tells that immortal story, the greatest story ever told, without distortion or interpretation.”

The Ten Commandments adaptation was unique in that it had a studio-sanctioned movie tie-in with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of his epic film. The comic book was also scripted by Graham.  According to Jones, cover artist Norman Nodel worked hand-in-hand with Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Dr. William C. Hayes to ensure “historical authenticity was a priority.” Powerful endorsements came from Poling (“Unqualifiedly I endorse this work”), Rabbi David Kahane of New York’s East 51st St. Synagogue (“…a scrupulously honest and pictorially beautiful account of a Biblical figure who is cherished by people of all creeds”) and National Conference of Christians & Jews director Roy McCorkel (“… I am favorably impressed with the quality of the work and the educational possibilities of the book”).

Make no mistake about it, these two 96-page comic books are not replacements for the Bible, and should never be treated as such. Indeed, Kanter intended his Classics Illustrated versions to be used as faithful adaptations of Biblical stories, as well as important teaching tools for children. These books open a small window of discovery, introducing important religious sites, figures and Scripture to young minds. They’re also meant to inspire these budding readers to learn more about Christianity by going to the original source for information.

While Kanter’s company has long since gone, the original Classics Illustrated catalogue is being republished by other groups – with new stories on the way. In particular, Toronto’s Jack Lake Productions has re-released The Story of Jesus and The Ten Commandments in beautiful hardcover editions. Both volumes would make wonderful Christmas gifts that you and your children could experience and enjoy together. In a cringe-free environment, no less.

Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.