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May 1, 2010

New Books: The Olympians

Greek myths were my fairy tales when I was young. I remember loving that the stories always seemed to have some kind of twist to them: the hero wasn’t always heroic, and even the gods themselves were often petty, jealous, and downright mean. The deities may have been nearly omnipotent, but they were also developed characters, and that always made for good stories.

So of course, I was eager to introduce these tales, which are getting a lot more play among kids these days anyway, to my son Dash, 5. We started with the classic D’Aulaires book, and he took immediately to the adventure stories: golden fleece, gorgon’s head, flying horse. Still, the D’Aulaires’ writing style often shows signs of the book’s age—for adventure tales, it can be a little dry. Yet there didn’t seem to be much else on this subject for a kid Dash’s age.

Enter graphic-novel artist and writer George O’Connor, who has created a series of comic books about the Olympian gods, published by First Second Books—the first two, Zeus: King of the Gods and Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess are already out. Now, I love comics as only someone who wasn’t allowed to have them as a child can, but I’ll admit to some initial skepticism: Marvel Comics delved into mythology long ago, and while the results often stood well enough on their own,  I wouldn’t use them to introduce anyone to the basics of Norse mythology.

But O’Connor has been rigorously faithful to the original myths—he even cites his sources (the big boys: Hesiod, Ovid, etc.), alongside suggestions for further reading in the back. His interpretations are vivid, absolutely gorgeous, and often revelatory. For instance, the Greek creation myths—Gaea and Uranus and the Titans and all that—can be murky stuff; I recall skipping over a lot of them as a kid to get to the juicier Olympian gods. But O’Connor begins his Zeus book at, well, the beginning, and then produces both the clearest and most beautiful portrayal of the pre-Olympians I’ve ever read or seen. 

And if he indulges in a little “teen Zeus” melodrama at times, well, what’s wrong with that? The Olympians spent a decent amount of their time acting like teenagers, frankly. (Fair warning: There is a bit of violence to these myths, and while O’Connor is never graphic in his portrayals, he doesn’t omit it entirely. Didn't bother me, but some might object.)

Of course, none of that would matter if the books didn’t play to kids. But Dash, who reads the D’Aulaires' book with calm interest, was over the moon at his first sight of Zeus--his eyes lit up, and he tore into it immediately. Both graphic novels have had great staying power, too, making repeated appearances at both bedtime and in his solo reading.

O'Connor has created a fantastic, and much-needed, addition to the Greek-myths-for-children genre. Dash can’t wait for his next entry (Hera—oooh!), and honestly, neither can I.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

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