Thursday, February 18, 2010

Making Sense of the Gods: Five Fun Myth Books

Young Zeus

By G. Brian Karas

Scholastic Press, 2010

$17.99, ages 4-18, 48 pages

Encyclopedia Mythologica:
Gods & Heroes

By Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda

Candlewick Press, 2010

$29.99, ages 9-12, 12 pages

Mythical gods may not rank up there with wizards and vampires as your child's favorite characters -- and not surprisingly. With so many duking it out for control over the universe, it's enough to make your child's head spin.

But when you think about how often myths pop up in children's books -- from Chris Van Allsburg's The Wreck of the Zephyr to Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series -- it's hard not to want to nudge your child to learn the basics.

Just knowing a little about the gods, heroes and beasts of Greek, Roman and Nordic mythology can enrich your child's reading experience -- and ideally, give them insight into some of the books they already love to read.

The challenge, of course, is finding mythology books that are interesting enough to draw readers away from their usual selections and brush up on who's who.

Fortunately there are some really great books that bring levity, clarity and a lot fun to the subject.

One of my new favorites is Karas's Young Zeus -- a perfect picture book to introduce young readers to the Greek gods' family tree. Karas retells the story of the chief deity in such a playful way its seems more like a fairy tale than an ancient legend.

The book opens with the queen of heaven Rhea whisking her baby son Zeus out of harm's way to the island of Crete. Fearing that Zeus's sinister father, the Titan Cronus, will eat Zeus if he discovers his son is still alive, Rhea asks an enchanted she-goat Amaltheia to keep Zeus hidden until he's grown.

Though Zeus is happy playing in the golden sun with all of the beasts and birds of Crete, he misses playing with other gods, and asks "Ammy" (Amaltheia) why he's all alone. Like all Greek mythology, it's complicated, but Ammy manages to give Zeus a good run-through of the quarrels that led to his dilemma.

First, of course, was the marital discord between his grandparents the sky god Uranus and earth god Gaia -- Uranus loved twelve of his children, the Titans, but was so ashamed of the six who were monsters that he locked them away in the underworld against his wife's wishes.

Then there's that louse Cronos, who was asked by his mother Gaia to dethrone Uranus and free his six monster siblings, but instead left them in the underworld to suffer. He was so power-hungry that he eventually gobbled up all of his children (except Zeus of course) for fear they might overthrow him.

Little did Cronos know, however, that when he began to eat his kids, his wife Rhea wrapped a rock up in a blanket to look like Zeus, and stole Zeus away to safety, which brings Ammy to the end of her story -- and the beginning of Zeus's legendary fight for justice.

On the next pages, Zeus embarks on a quest to free his siblings, the other Olympians, from his father's stomach and together with the help of his uncles in the underworld, defeat Cronos and his other sons, the wicked Titans.

Karas brings humor and magic to this tale, depicting scenes as I child might imagine them. There's mother Rhea sweeping down like a storm cloud with baby Zeus, then a young Zeus, nearly as tall as the tree he's sitting by, moping with his head in his hands because he doesn't have any gods to play with.

Another splendid new release is Reinhart and Sabuda's Encyclopedia Mythologica: Gods & Heroes, an overview of ancient myths with intricate pop-ups no child can resist.

On one page Thor, the Nordic sky god, pops out at readers with a magical hammer over his head while on another an Aztec serpent flies toward them with its jaws open. (Just be sure to open and close each spread slowly. Some pop-ups have to be guided closed to prevent elements from overlapping and ripping.)

Watch a book trailer of the pop-up below!

You also can't go wrong with the 2007 Mythology and the 2009 followup The Mythology Handbook: An Introduction to the Greek Myths, both part of Candlewick's "Ology" series.

Mythology, the scrapbook of fictional nineteenth century scholar Lady Hestia Evans, includes fun pull-out parts and flaps, and curiosities. including a card game featuring the 12 Olympians. The Mythology Handbook, a workbook of lessons for Hestia's two children, includes mazes, a word search using Greek letters, stickers, fact files and maps.

Another wonderful book is Eric A. Kimmel and Pep Montserrat's The McElderry Book of Greek Myths, a 2008 release from Margaret K. McElderry. Perfect for bedside reading, the anthology brings to life 12 myths (among them Pandora's Box and the story of Pygmalion) with richly colored images that meander around the text.

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