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January 4, 2011

2010 Wrap: Books, Part 2

Another trend in kids' books last year was a continued surge in works either about or inspired by ancient Greek mythology. Much to my delight—as a child, I read these stories more than traditional Grimm fairy tales—this has been building for some time now, largely, I suspect, because of the phenomenal success of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. Still, as recently as early last year I had trouble finding much to recommend to a friend whose daughter had plowed through the Riordan books and wanted to delve further into their original source material. (I ended up suggesting the classic D'Aulaires book, which is now nearly 50 years old.)

But 2010 brought a number of new entries. The two I liked best take very different approaches, one modern and cutting-edge, the other retro and, well, classical in style. Both, though, do a great job of capturing the feel of these ancient myths and presenting the narratives to kids in new, eye-opening ways, and of avoiding the stiff, stultifying tone that infects far too many kids' books on the subject. (As the Athenian playwrights knew—comedians and dramatists alike—these characters and stories are intended to be entertaining.)

The first was the subject of my very first post for this blog: George O'Connor's marvelous Olympians series, graphic-novel treatments of the tales of the major Greek gods. (Thus far we have Zeus and Athena, with hopefully many more on their way soon.) The conversion of the myths to the typical comic-book format and tone certainly has the effect of lightening the traditional weight of these stories, but that's a good thing—after all, the origin stories of the Olympian gods are among the more impenetrable myths in most retellings. O'Connor cuts right through that with his dynamic and colorful panels, while also remaining remarkably faithful to the original stories. His sources are the ancient poets and writers themselves (Hesiod, Pindar, etc.), and it shows. The results are irresistible to children—my older son couldn't put these books down for months—and also some of the clearest, most expressive, and I think truest representations in the English language of these old, old tales.

The second, which came out late in the year, handles the myths in more usual children's-book fashion. Greek Myths is a hardcover volume of concise retellings by Ann Turnbull of many of the more famous stories, accompanied by Sarah Young's gorgeous illustrations, which are modeled after classical Greek vase art. (The images bring to mind an out-of-print favorite of mine from my own childhood, a large-format Golden Books The Iliad and The Odyssey by Jane Werner Watson, illustrated in unforgettable fashion by Alice and Martin Provensen.) But if the format of Turnbull and Young's work is nothing new, their execution is among the best I've seen: clear storytelling and evocative art that, for me, catapults this book past the D'Aulaires' one (which, while groundbreaking in its time, feels pretty dated these days on both fronts). Going forward, Greek Myths will be my primary recommendation as a children's Greek-mythology primer.

Coming in part 3: Looking backward.

[Images courtesy of First Second Books (Zeus) and Candlewick Press (Greek Myths).]

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