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Classics For Kids

Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus, gods forever young and feasting in the sky . . . blue-bearded Poseidon with his Nereids and Tritons in the sea . . . oh, and the splendid goddesses: Aphrodite, bringer of beauty to the world . . . cool, self-sufficient Artemis . . . Athena, born to be brainy . . . their power and sheer beauty have long held a shining place in my imagination.

I fell in love with them as a preteen back in the ‘40s. In those times, quite young children read “Bulfinch’s Mythology,” Hawthorne’s “Tanglewood Tales” and “Twice-Told Tales” and retellings by Edith Hamilton and Padraic Column. Children around age 12 or 13 tackled the real thing: Homer--the “Iliad” or “Odyssey” or both.

To me, the good parts of the “Iliad” were the ones about the goddesses and gods. Those came so alive, they made up for boring repetitions in other parts and for the general confusion over whys and wherefores caused by Homer starting and ending in the middle of the action.

Bulfinch (I still have my tattered old copy) dutifully included myths from a very few other traditions. But no one bothered much with those. Greek and Roman myths were the ones that mattered.

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Not until the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, with the slow onset of multiculturalism, did myths from other traditions begin to be published. In the ‘80s, the floodgates opened wide. Since then, such quantities of retellings from so many other cultures have been pouring forth, I worried that “classic"--that is, Greek and Roman--myths might now be in eclipse.

Searching shelves A through G of the Children’s Book Council’s near-complete collection of books published in the last three years, I found: tales from the Sahara, the Yanomami (Venezuelan), the Navajo nation, Appalachia, New Mexico, the West African Gold Coast, Tibet, New Guinea, Siberia, the aborigines of Shadbroke Island in the Pacific--and not a single one from ancient Greece or Rome.

Poor old classic myths, I thought. Done for, obliterated by multicultural backlash.

Not so. Looking further, having rounded up 45 books to consider, a smallish, perhaps not reasonable number, I’m glad to report that Greek and Roman myths are holding their own. And they do deserve a place in today’s multicultural scene. For these reasons:

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First, regardless how familiar they may be to parents and educators, young readers first encountering them will find them just as strange and new as myths from cultures that have only recently begun to be explored.

The second reason has to do with new approaches to retelling. In the 19th century and on into the 1950s, Greece and Rome were held to be the sacred bedrock of Western civilization. Accordingly, retellers aimed to show that Greek and Roman beliefs, institutions and ways of life were models for, and similar to, ours. Now, with new ways of looking at history, retellers bring out differences, aspects of those cultures whose interest derives from being other, or contrary to, current value systems. For example, the Greeks, whose values have for so long been held up as exemplary, thought making war for purposes of pillaging perfectly acceptable; they treated foreigners as less than human and women as chattel.

Some current retellings point up connections between myth and geographical or societal context. Sometimes it’s the illustrators who make this happen. For instance, Arvis Stewart, in her frontispiece to Alice Low’s “Macmillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes” (Macmillan, 1985) and Aliki, early on in “The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus” (HarperCollins, 1994), show the head of Mother Earth, both arising from, and existing as part of, a mountainous landscape typically Greek. This image conveys, perhaps more clearly than a verbal explanation could, how closely land and deities were linked in the ancients’ minds.

If I could keep just one of all the books I had a chance to consider, I’d choose the late Rosemary Sutcliff’s “Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad,” eloquently illustrated by Alan Lee (Delacorte, 1993). I wish I’d had a book like that back when I struggled with Homer. Sutcliff never waxes pompous or ponderous, as retellers often do. Her supple prose effectively cuts through stylistic difficulties and confusions yet evokes much of the original’s grandeur. She starts where the action really began, with the judgment of Paris, which led to the abduction of Helen, which caused the Trojan War. She tells about the birth and boyhood of Achilles, and she ends with the Trojan horse trick that resulted in Troy’s defeat. By including these and other essentials (that Homer could afford to skip because his audiences already knew them), Sutcliff makes the story accessible and its characters moving to young readers today. Incidentally, she does not gloss over, or water down, the savagery, war lust and slave trading that were part of the civilization we recognize among our forebears.

Turning from such a weighty work to the fluffy--thanks to the talented Rosemary Wells, there now are Greek myths for toddlers. In the first book, “Max and Ruby’s First Greek Myth: Pandora’s Box” (Dial, 1993), older sister Ruby warns Max not to snoop in her jewelry box by telling him about Pandora (who’s an ancient Greek bunny, of course). In the second, “Max and Ruby’s Midas” (Dial, 1995), Ruby warns Max against cupcake greed by telling about insatiable Midas, who turned his family into hot fudge sundaes and the like. Happily, Max is undaunted and does not grasp the morals of these myths. Nor will very young children. But some appealing graphic detail may well linger in their memories--a sailing ship, a temple or Pan (another bunny) playing his pipes--and later on may light up the whole subject of Greek antiquity for them. Meantime, parents will enjoy how cleverly Wells spoofs the preachiness with which conventional retellers have too often foisted the Midas and Pandora myths on children. Wells is that rare combination, equal parts artist and author.

In Leonard Everett Fisher and the late Warwick Hutton, both prolific myth retellers, the artist part predominates. Fisher’s powerfully expressive paintings are far more dramatic and compelling than his narrations of Theseus and the Minotaur, Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Cyclops (Holiday House, 1988, 1990, 1991). In “The Trojan Horse,” “Perseus,” “Persephone” and “Odysseus and the Cyclops” (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1992-'95), Hutton writes entertainingly, but it’s the lyricism of his watercolors you come away remembering.

Of the single-myth retellings I read, I enjoyed these two the most: Laura Geringer’s “The Pomegranate Seeds,” illustrated by Leonid Gore (HarperCollins, 1995), and Shirley Climo’s “Atalanta’s Race,” illustrated by Alexander Koshkin (Clarion Books, 1995). Neither Geringer nor Climo chooses a strong female protagonist merely because that’s what’s in demand right now. Both retellers invest their full imaginative powers in their heroines. Geringer’s Demeter and Persephone retelling, milder than most, makes Hades more of an uncle than a rapist, kidnapping Persephone because his “palace needs a lively little girl to . . . brighten the rooms with her smile.” Geringer cites Hawthorne’s “Tanglewood Tales” as inspiration. (Sadly, that wonderful book is hard to find.) Geringer’s main endeavor, admittedly personal, is to create links and conflicts between Demeter and Persephone such as exist between mothers and daughters today.

Climo makes the most of the Atalanta story’s appealing fairy tale elements (princess raised by a she-bear in the wild, then adopted by a hunter and restored to royalty). But she does not flinch at such harsh realities as that unwanted children, girls more often than boys, were routinely exposed to the elements. And rather than leave off with the happy wedding, as is customary, she gives the dire but dramatically justified ending of Atalanta and her husband Melanion’s transformation into lioness and lion as punishment because they failed to thank Aphrodite for her gift of the golden apples. Koshkin’s gorgeous illustrations have the look of ancient frescoes and are rich in Greek motifs.

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The most innovative of the collections I saw is Marcia Williams’ “Greek Myths for Young Children” (Candlewick, 1991) in comic book format. “For Young Children” is perhaps too broad: Readers under 8 or 9 may have trouble keeping all the information straight. In just 32 pages, Williams takes on all of these: Pandora, Arion and the Dolphins, Orpheus, Heracles, Daedalus and Icarus, Perseus and Medusa, Theseus and the Minotaur, Arachne versus Athena. She tells their stories briskly, briefly in the white spaces between the strips. The comic characters inside the strips provide colloquial asides and quips via talk balloons. (“I’ll teach you to mess with me,” Zeus says, chaining Prometheus to the rock. And Icarus suggests to Daedalus, “Let’s try holding wings, Dad.”) This irreverently funny book is just right for children 9 and up who shy away from anything that smacks of schoolwork and can be a bridge to territory they might otherwise never visit.

Even though meant for school use, “Myths and Legends of Mount Olympos” by Charles F. Baker III and Rosalie F. Baker, with resource activities and a teacher’s guide (that nonteachers can skip), illustrated with line drawings by Joyce Audy Zarins (Cobblestone, 1992), is highly readable with a what-happened-next feeling to it that makes it hard to put down. It unconfused me more effectively than any other book I read (even Hesiod, the Bakers’ main source), as to just which Titans and gods begat, and on occasion swallowed and, with luck, spat out again, exactly whom--and even why. Also, it gives information about how the Romans took over and tailored Greek myths to suit their needs and how various festivals came to be.

When baby Zeus was hidden away so that his father, Cronos, would not eat him, a goat named Amaltheia gave him milk. Later, Zeus rewarded her by making one of her horns a cornucopia, a horn of plenty, forever filled with whatever goodies Amaltheia wished. Having learned this from the Bakers’ “Myths and Legends of Mount Olympus,” I now want to recommend another cornucopia of a book: “The Illustrated Book of Myths: Tales and Legends of the World” retold by Neil Philip (Dorling Kindersley, 1995). It overflows with beautifully illustrated stories and a wealth of related facts, artifacts and photographs provided in sidebars that enhance its eye-catchingly designed pages. This book is as multicultural as anyone could wish, including stories from no less than 33 cultures. What’s more, Neil Philip is perfectly at home in each. A scholar with a doctorate in myth and folklore, he’s an engaging writer, never stuffy or self-important. He seizes on the essence of even the remotest-seeming stories and makes sense of them. His underlying belief must be that all great myths, regardless from where, are equally rich in wonders. By bringing these out glowingly, he whets children’s appetites for myths from everywhere. Nilesh Mistry’s illustrations vary from bold to delicate as miniatures. They are a pleasure in themselves as well as good accompaniment to Philip’s first-rate text.

Lastly, I want to call attention to Ellen Switzer’s and Costas’ “Greek Myths: Gods, Heroes and Monsters, Their Sources, Their Stories and Their Meanings” (Atheneum, 1988). This book is intended for high school age and up. Its scope is vast; the scholarship behind it solid; its prose style pleasantly breezy. It accounts for major gods, goddesses and heroes, female and male; summarizes major myths as well as some gem-like less well-known ones; popular legends too, and the Trojan War complete with aftermaths, as told in Homer and in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. A unique feature: prefaces to each chapter giving sources and cogent speculations about how different versions of particular stories relate to historical and topographical factors.

Costas, co-author and photographer, was raised on Chios, supposedly the birthplace of Homer, so it’s no wonder that his photographs help bridge the chasm between antiquity and now. They include not only monuments and ruins but also landscapes that remain as they once were, a present-day swan who could well be mistaken for Zeus about to make love to Leda and a pelican much like the one who guarded the island of Delos when Leto gave birth to the twin gods Artemis and Apollo.


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