BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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On Greek Mythology for Children, Part One

[There are more greek mythology books aimed at kids than I could possibly cover in a single column. So, let's start with a few of my favorite collections and move on from there, shall we? :)]

For many people, mention "greek mythology" and "children's books" and their thoughts immediately turn to d'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. It is the standard text for public and school libraries, and for many personal libraries. Not without cause, either: Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire crafted a timeless, skillfully-told, beautifully-illustrated book. That cover is immediately recognizable, and many of the interior illustrations have stayed with me since the first time I cracked that cover.

It is not, however, the only book on Greek mythology for children.

Consider, for instance, The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus by Aliki. The vivid, bright illustrations are perfect for capturing young imaginations, and the simple (not simplistic) text will encourage kids to read it on their own (or with a bit of adult help). The biographies of the Olympians are also a good starting point, providing just enough information to whet little ones' appetites. 

One of the most prized in my personal collection is Children's Treasury of Mythology by Margaret Evans Price. I first found it in the local library as a child, but was never able to find a copy for sale until many years later. Originally published in the 1920s, this collection includes wonderful, vintage illustrations; Greek mythology meets Art Nouveau and the Roaring Twenties. And while the stories are softened for younger readers, they are not completely stripped of adventure and passion.

A couple of years ago, I picked up Greek Myths by Ann Turnbull and Sarah Young. I fell in love with the image of Athena on the cover, with her great golden helmet and dark, snaky hair. Inside, Turnbull retells sixteen tales, some well-known (the Minotaur), some little-known (Arethusa), with one tale often leading to the next; eg Arethusa's transformation into an underground river leads to the tale of Persephone's abduction, which in turn leads to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Each story is accompanied by full-page or spot mixed media illustrations. I especially like how Young mixes the divine, the natural, and the human together: a mountain that looks like a sleeping man covered in flowers and grass, naiads who look like women made of water.

Another collection which skillfully interweaves text and art is Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, and Monsters by Donna Jo Napoli and Christina Balit. If you can only buy or check out one book, make it this one. Napoli does an excellent job of knitting the many myths together into a coherent narrative, showing how one relates to and influences another. I particularly love her exploration of the Olympians' differing reactions to "life" inside Cronus and how that effects their choices after; when you think about, there were very personal reasons Hades chose the Underworld and Hestia chose the hearth. Like Turnbull and Young's Greek Myths, here, too, each story is accompanied by full-page and spot illustrations. Balit's artwork is vibrant, golden, symbol-rich and highly-stylized; sort of, Minoan Crete meets Mardi Gras. 

Another recent addition to my collection is Shapeshifters: Tales of Ovid's Metamorphoses by Adrian Mitchell and Alan Lee -- yes, that Alan Lee, best known for his work on The Lord of the Rings. He was actually the reason that I bought the book in the first place; it turns out, though, that Mitchell is a damn fine poet. Unlike other books, which offer prose retellings of the myths, Mitchell varies his style between prose, poetry, prose-poetry, and even newspaper headlines and excerpts. Considering that Mitchell and Lee do not shy away from nudity and gruesomeness -- and that most of these tales deal with the folly and consequences of hubris -- it might be best to save this one for slightly older children. If Aliki's Gods and Goddesses of Olympus is  a good fit for a six year-old, than Shapeshifters is best for the eleven-plus crowd.

Speaking of six year-olds, consider Z is for Zeus: A Greek Mythology Alphabet by Helen L Wilbur and Victor Juhasz. Opening with a lesson on how ancient stories and words still influence us, the main part of the book consists of a nearly full-page illustration for each letter of the alphabet, a short poem, and a lengthy side-bar explaining the story behind the poem. Wilbur's poetry is a bit scattershot in quality, but Juhasz' illustrations are wonderfully comic (I especially like the picture of all the Olympians, with Hera's peacock and Zeus' eagle glaring daggers at one another). The kids read the poems aloud, the adults read the sidebar, then discuss.

Finally, for every kid at heart, there is the Encyclopedia Mythologica: Gods and Heroes by Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda. The text is enough to pique anyone's interest, but the real joy here is -- of course -- the stunning three-dimensional paper illustrations. Each two-page spread deals with a different pantheon or region of the world: ancient Egypt, the Norse Deities, the Greek pantheon, classical heroes, Asian and Pacific Deities, and indigenous American Deities. My sole complaint is that this book is too short; too much information packed into a few pages. I want a whole book about just Egyptian myths, darn it! One book just on Greece!

So, there you have them: my recommendations for great kids books on Greek mythology. Considering just how many such books are out there, I anticipate that this will be just the first in a very long (though not necessarily consecutive) series of columns.

And, as always, if I missed one of your favorites, let me know!

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


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