In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two small girls and a baby boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Audio on the road

Dear Annie,

I hope you all are feeling more settled in your house, into the routines of school, and well-partied from Isabel's fifth birthday.  What a lot has been happening!

You sent me a lovely query from your friends Eunice and Ryan about audio books on a car trip, a topic near and dear to my personal and professional hearts.

Ryan is taking two boys, in first and third grade, "on an epic southwest road trip (Yosemite, Mammoth, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Yellowstone, Tahoe). "  Says Eunice:
There's a lot of car time coming up for Ryan and the boys. I tried convincing him that an audio download of Harry Potter would be the perfect fit, but Ryan is dead set on sticking with only "western" themed children's books.
As a family, we spent large amounts of time listening to audio books, both on long road trips, and going from place to place in town.  They're a fantastic way to enjoy a trip while still being able to look out the windows.

With audio books, even more than when a parent reads, delivery trumps content.  A good or average book read by an average (or bad) reader won't hold anyone's attention.  As we used to counsel our children in college: pick the elective course by the professor, someone who can excite you about a topic you didn't know you wanted to know about.  Going for the topic alone -- with professors or audio books -- can condemn you to boredom.  I think that's Eunice's motivation with the Harry Potter suggestion.  They're fantastic audio, but I'd suggest waiting a couple of years for the kids to get more out of them, and to avoid the really scary bits.

So I've come up with a list which includes some western themes, some vaguely western themes (does Portland, Oregon count?), books about trips and quests, and just good books.

I'll start with Jim Weiss, who's a storyteller.  His recordings sound like someone who's telling a story -- a little chattier -- not like someone who's reading you a book.  Lizzie was hooked on his King Arthur recording for years.  He's got a few western themes:
American Tall Tales: Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, "Fastest Draw in the West."
His Gone West includes Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail, and Indian wars.
A CD called Tales from Cultures Far and Near has what's described as a funny Lakota Sioux legend, then other stories from around the world.

Robin Williams' Pecos Bill
The best storytelling audios ever, in my opinion, are the Rabbit Ears recordings.  They paired famous actors and actresses reading with background by major musical talent.  So you've got:
Robin Williams reading Pecos Bill with music by Ry Cooder,
Keith Carradine telling the story of Annie Oakley with music by Los Lobos,
Jonathan Winters doing Paul Bunyan with Leo Kottke.
There are lots more: check out the Rabbit Ears site.

All of these storytelling recordings, although entertaining, are not as long as book audios.  Most of them are 30 to 60 minutes.  Most books will run you much longer.

On themes of the west and wildlife and a great story, you can't go wrong with
The Trumpet of the Swan
, written and read by E.B. White. He has a wonderful old Mainer voice.  The story of Louis, the mute trumpeter swan, starts in western Canada, spends a good deal of time in Montana, and eventually makes it cross country to the Boston Public Garden.  It's full of nature and boy/swan friendship, and just great storytelling.

On to Portland, Oregon and two wildly different genres.  Beverly Cleary, as you know, is one of my favorite authors.  Stockard Channing did an excellent job of recording the Ramona books: they follow a younger sister from her pre-school days through fourth grade.  I don't know how these guys feel about books whose central characters are female (sigh), but I'd recommend two different Ramona books with boys as major secondary characters.  Cleary writes very empathetically about the experience of whatever age she's describing.  Ramona the Pest, about her kindergarten year, includes a rivalry with Howie, the boy next door.  And in Ramona Quimby, Age 8 she has a constant teasing friendship with the boy she refers to as "Yard Ape."  That book also features Ramona throwing up in school, and breaking a raw egg on her head.

Cleary also did a series about a boy named Henry Huggins.  Those books feel a little more dated than the Ramonas, but they're still entertaining.  The reader isn't up to Channing's high quality.  The first book, Henry Huggins, includes the story of Henry finding Ribsy, a stray dog, and coming very close to losing him again.  Great for dog loving kids.

And one other Portland book:
Wildwood
, by Colin Meloy (lead singer of the Decembrists), read by Amanda Plummer.  I'm surprised I haven't blogged about this book.  It's a Narnia-like fantasy: two kids enter a magical forest in Portland, trying to find a baby who's been stolen by crows.  They enter into a world of talking animals, bandits, and shifting alliances.  It's an intricate and well-written tale which will last for many hours.  I haven't heard the audio, but we get good reviews of it from customers.

I'll end with two great completely different books about travel/quests.  We know how much we all like Where the Mountain Meets the MoonThe recording, I'm told, is also excellent.  It's about running away from home and going on a quest to find the Man in the Moon.  Will entertain in a car for quite a while.

I've saved the weirdest for last:  Jim Copp's and Ed Brown's  children's stories, recorded mostly in the 1960s.  We came upon them by chance, following up on a brief mention of them in The Atlantic, of all places.  Lunatic, hilarious, wacky and weird are words which come up in descriptions of them.  The recording we loved -- and the whole family can still quote from -- is A Journey to San Francisco with the Glups.  Think of it as The Stupids Go on a Road Trip.  The Glups are a completely clueless family, traveling with their cow Bossy from Maine to San Francisco to claim an inheritance.  There are songs and great sound effects and many different accents -- and of course some mooing. 

So there's an array of audio.  I envy those three guys the trip.   How about a guest blog when they get back about what they listened to?

Love,

Deborah





Sunday, September 14, 2014

The staying power of children's books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Hearing about your work in the store always makes me happy -- so good to know you're there, making excellent book to person connections every day. I've just put the first two books in the Whatever After series on my library hold list -- they sound like a perfect fit for Eleanor, who loved the Sisters Grimm. We're constantly on the lookout now for new middle-grade series to keep her happily in books. Yesterday, she picked up The Lightning Thief, the first Percy Jackson book, and stayed up past midnight to finish it, thrilled and a little frightened by the end. She must have stopped 25 times during the day to tell me, "This is a really good book!" Any other suggestions?

I've been thinking this week about the staying power of children's books. As I'm sure you've noticed, a recent meme on Facebook has people listing 10 books that have stayed with them and/or made a difference in their lives. A little data analysis done by the folks at Facebook was reported in Mother Jones, under the headline, "Almost All the Books People Say Influenced Them Were Written for Children." Many of these are YA titles, with Harry Potter topping the list, but a few are picture books as well.

My own list (when I succumbed to being tagged and posted one) was no exception: half children's books. The one straight-up picture book I chose was Maurice Sendak's fabulous In the Night Kitchen. Immediately, my friend Ann messaged me about this choice. She said she'd bought the book for her daughter on my recommendation, but found aspects of it "surreal and horrifying," and wondered what I did with the Holocaust references. 

Holocaust references! I had to think, because that's something I'd never seen in In the Night Kitchen. I've always read the book in the way my father read it to me, with great joy: as an assertion of individuality, and a triumphing over people who try to force you to be something you're not. The bakers want to put Mickey in the cake, and refer to him as milk, but he breaks out: "I'm not the milk, and the milk's not me! I'm Mickey!" Then he goes farther, finding the real milk and adding it to the batter, helping to create the cake which will feed everyone in the morning: "I'm in the milk and the milk's in me! God bless milk and God bless me!"

Mickey isn't in control at the beginning of his journey -- the fall out of his clothes and into the night kitchen -- but he has gained control by the end. It's always felt to me like a vivid depiction of something children feel all the time, as they are thrown into situations not of their own making. So while I can look at it now and think, oh, the bakers have mustaches and they're trying to put Mickey in an oven, and Sendak wrote other things specifically referencing the Holocaust, I can't feel that that is the meaning behind this book. And of course it's not a meaning a two-year-old would have access to.

Sometimes being a parent requires you to put aside your own references in order to make space for your child's interpretation, or at least to combine your understanding with theirs. I know that my understanding of In the Night Kitchen was shaped by my father, who also read me the Chronicles of Narnia without ever hinting at their Christian underpinnings, but was willing and able to discuss that meaning with me when I figured it out later.

This goes beyond books as well, of course. Will is fascinated by airplanes, and points up at them every time he hears one go by overhead. This past week, with the anniversary of September 11th hovering, I was terribly aware of the resonances of airplanes in a cloudless blue sky, even as I watched Will's enjoyment of them.

This week, I will make time to read The Lightning Thief, so that Eleanor and I can talk about what thrilled her and what scared her yesterday. I'll continue to read The Phoenix and the Carpet to both Eleanor and Isabel when Will is distracted by something else, and will read Will Ollie the Stomper (sequel to Ollie) roughly 500 times. And I wonder, as I often do, what will have the greatest staying power for them.

Love, Annie

Friday, September 5, 2014

Back to bookselling

Dear Annie,

I love visualizing you five in a house -- with stairs! -- snuggled together reading ancient tales.  We carry both of those chatty Greek mythology series.  I prefer Myth-O-Mania too, but The Goddess Girls sell more.  Holub and Williams have also written a slightly younger series called Heroes in Training, with titles like Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Doom, and Poseidon and the Sea of Fury.  It does similar messing with the mythology in cute fashion.

I got back from Maine at the start of the week.  The book section was in more than the usual chaos: the young woman we had trained to look after it while I was away left for another job two weeks ago.  (Life in retail).  So I've been digging out from a certain amount of chaos while the new fall books are already arriving.  Lots of good ones, which I'll be writing about soon.

Today, though, was a day that made me happy.  Fridays are always fairly busy, and I had my hands full.  Several of my favorite grandparents showed up -- two of them had vacationed (separately) in Alaska; all had tales of summer ups and downs.  The man who has been so delighted anticipating and then greeting his first grandchild came in looking for a book for another child, a kindergartner in a Spanish immersion school in the midwest, whose parents don't speak Spanish.  He ended up with an Elephant and Piggie, and the bilingual version of
Nuestro Autobus/The Bus for Us
by Suzanne Bloom.  I also encouraged him to find Emily's splendid post about reading to infants.

A wonderful retired school librarian wanted a board book for an energetic one year-old who wasn't into sitting quietly with books.  She ended up with a book with holes in the pages that are good for grabbing:
Who Do I See?
by Salina Yoon.

A mom needing gifts for a third grade book exchange birthday party -- and who wanted hardcovers -- took Odd and the Frost Giants  and Fortunately the Milk, both by Neil Gaiman.

A mom who I met years ago when she became the stepmother of a friend of Lizzie's came in with her 10 year-old son -- they're just back from living two years overseas.  They left with a Calvin and Hobbes book.

I played what's-that-book with a fourth grader: she couldn't remember the name of a funny series about a brother and sister who are magicked into different fairy tales.  I tried a couple of series: A Tale Dark and Grimm has a brother and sister, but wasn't it (probably a little too dark for her taste); The Sisters Grimm doesn't have a brother in it.  Then it hit me: a couple of times in the past few months I've been asked for the Whatever After series by Sarah Mlynowski, which we don't carry.  That was it: she'd read
Dream On
, about Sleeping Beauty.  So I special ordered a couple of other titles for her, and ordered one of each book for the store.  I've heard enough about the series that it's worth giving it a try.  Another case of a customer turning us on to books worth carrying.

A box of special orders which I'd been told wouldn't arrive until Monday popped up in the middle of the afternoon, complete with What to Do When You Worry Too Much.  I called the mom who'd ordered it and she showed up right away, relieved to have the weekend to read it with her child.

And somewhere in that busy day three of us at the store spent a total of maybe an hour and a half interviewing a candidate for a job which would include doing a lot of work in the book section.  A very likable person, knowledgeable about kids' books -- she even volunteered (with no prompting) that she can't stand the Berenstain Bears. A woman after my own heart.

Other folks showed up all day long, with other questions to make me think.  At the end of a day like this, I go home knowing that I've supplied a fair number of kids with the experience of opening up a book they haven't seen before.  It's very satisfying.

Love,

Deborah

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Greeks, tweaked

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I just took the time to read Lois Lowry's Newbery speech, which you linked to in last week's post, and now I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes. I think I'll skip the movie, but I'll go back to reread The Giver soon.

We are settling into our new house (the first house I've ever lived in, after a lifetime of New York apartments), unpacking and feeling out how the spaces will work. Because of contractor slowness, we are without the full wall of bookshelves we'd planned in the living room, so we haven't yet been able to unpack the major part of our library. I feel a little hobbled by this. But we are making do! There's one tall bookshelf crammed to the gills in the kids' playroom, and we have a nice pile of books out from the library.

We are still deep into mythology over here -- maybe something about the discombobulation of a move makes the Big Dramatic stories more attractive? With both girls, I'm reading aloud Odd and the Frost Giants, which is tremendous fun now that we've read D'Aulaire's Norse Myths cover to cover. Both Eleanor and Isabel are quick to catch references to the classic stories: Thor (in the form of a bear) repeatedly mentioning Loki's time in the form of a mare, which annoys Loki to no end; brief mentions of Thor's wife Sif and the lovely Freya.

We've all been rereading George O'Connor's Olympians series (we're really going to have to buy that boxed set), tucking the books into backpacks for subway and playground reading.

And Eleanor has been captivated by two middle grade chapter book series based -- more or less -- on characters from Greek mythology. I've read one of each series, and while I'm not a convert to either, there is some interesting play happening in each.

The series I like more is Myth-O-Mania, by Kate McMullan. In each of the nine books, Hades narrates an alternate version of a classical Greek myth, presenting himself as the hero of a number of stories, and Zeus as a blowhard who exaggerates his achievements. The titles are exclamatory and cute: Have a Hot Time, Hades!Say Cheese, Medusa!, Keep a Lid on It, Pandora! Long Greek names are shortened to nicknames: Eurystheus, the king who assigns Hercules his labors, is "Eury"; Persephone is "Phony" or "P-phone"; Cerberus is "Cerbie." Many of the more unsavory parts of the original myths are explained away in Hades' breezy retellings. In Phone Home, Persephone!, there is no kidnapping. Persephone has a crush on Hades, and hitches a ride to the underworld, then tricks him into falling in love with her. In Get to Work, Hercules!, Hercules doesn't kill the Nemean lion, but somewhat accidentally frightens him into running headfirst into a tree.

Still, McMullan has clearly read her mythology. Her books are parodies, playing off of details, large and small, from the original myths. Part of the pleasure Eleanor is taking in the books (which she has reread more than once) comes from identifying the ways in which they stay true to the stories, and the ways they tweak them.

Then you have the Goddess Girls, by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams. Their covers teem with large-eyed cartoon characters and titles swirled in girly script. The narrative places a number of Greek gods together in middle school, with Zeus as the principal. They refer to each other as "godboys" and "goddessgirls." The nods to the original myths are far smaller here. In the first book, Athena the Brain, Athena discovers at age 12 that she's the daughter of Zeus, when a magical scroll comes in through her window (she's been living on earth with the family of her friend Pallas) and tells her she's going to Mount Olympus Academy. So we lose one of the best origin stories in mythology, and get a thin version of the first chapter of Harry Potter instead.

Athena is the new girl, making friends with Aphrodite, Persephone, and Artemis, fighting with Medusa, and learning how to be a goddess after growing up on earth. While Eleanor loves these books, she was somewhat bothered by the ways in which Holub and Williams play fast and loose with the gods' ages: Zeus is the principal, and therefore an adult, but Poseidon (who should be Zeus's older brother) is a godboy who the goddessgirls have crushes on. There are cute moments: the Trojan War begins as a class project, with each goddessgirl and godboy being given a hero to guide on a quest. Athena has brought her toy wooden horse from earth, and on the spur of the moment makes it into the Trojan Horse.

The series wouldn't be my choice, but every time I see Eleanor start to reread another one and cringe a little at the level of cute, I remind myself of the reams of Sweet Valley High I read at just a few years older than she is now. She loves something I don't. But more than that, she loves to read. It'll be just fine.

Love, Annie

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Lois Lowry, The Giver, the movie, and Maine



Dear Annie,

I hope that your move has taken place, that it went incredibly smoothly, and that your children have settled in completely. 
 
We’re in Maine now and last Friday I went to the local premier of the movie of The Giver, by Lois Lowry.  I did not have high expectations for the movie, but it was showing in Bridgton Maine, where Lowry lives in the summers, and she spoke after the show.  


 I’ve written about The Giver and about Lowry before: the book is set in a dystopian world where individual freedoms have been sacrificed for security.  Jonas is a 12 year-old who’s been chosen to hold the collective memories of the world for the community members, who have no historical memory.  Jonas kidnaps a one year-old  who is going to be put to death and escapes, traveling across a grim and barren landscape.  The book ends very ambiguously: either Jonas and Gabe are about to be rescued by a warm, Christmas-carol singing community, or else they’re dying and Jonas is hallucinating rescue.

The book gives kids a lot to think about.  It’s about a boy who discovers his own moral compass in the face of a bland and dehumanizing society.  It’s also a good story with suspense and action and complex characters.  Lowry, who emphasized on Friday that she wrote the book for kids, not for grown-ups, has great respect for her readers.  

Okay.  So, the movie.  Sigh.  It’s not unalleviatedly awful.  Some of the details worked well.   It presents the monochromatic world of the book in visually very satisfying ways.  And  it felt well, okay, that Jonas has been moved up from 12 years old to 16: he and his contemporaries still have a kind of young naive air about them.  But then there’s the love interest (not in the book!), and the evil Meryl Streep who would fit right into the Hunger Games or Divergent movies.  A question about the expansion in the movie of the repressive Streep character is what prompted Lowry to say that she was writing her book for kids, not adults.  Jonas’s moral journey is there, but it takes place in labored speeches.

It’s a movie which is trying hard not to abandon the book, and at the same time is tarting it up because that’s what sells movies.  It has the flatness of a movie which is trying to telegraph all the complexity of a book into a too-small space.  Without quite believing it.

Lowry was in the awkward position of being part of the publicity machinery for an imperfect but not disastrous movie.   She was very diplomatic, but still gave some hints.  She had no control over the final product, but she said she had some strong disagreements with Harvey Weinstein, one of the film’s producers.

 “I had a lot of arguments with Harvey,” she said.  “He won them all.”  The disagreement she discussed was about the ending, which was portrayed too clearly as a magically happy transformation, rather than as the ambiguous one she had written.  

Such a contrast to her acceptance speech when she won the 1993 Newbery medal for The Giver.  She had won it three years earlier for Number the Stars:
I think the 1990 Newbery freed me to risk failure.  Other people took that risk with me, of course, One was my editor,  Walter Lorraine, who has never to my knowledge been afraid to take a chance.  Walter cares more about what a book has to say than he does about whether he can turn it into a stuffed animal or a calendar or a movie.
Love,

Deborah






Sunday, August 17, 2014

Guest blogger: Trippy books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

We're moving on Tuesday, and my life is a swirl of boxes and packing tape, discombobulated children and frustration with contractors. Happily, my dear friend Emily, who most recently guest blogged for us a couple of weeks ago about reading to her newborn, has written another most excellent post for this week:

Hi again Annie, 

One of the pleasures of having a new baby, aside from the tremendous new love in one’s life, is the influx of books from friends and well-wishers. Among the classics we've received – The Snowy Day, Make Way For Ducklings – are a few wingy selections. Three of these trippy, singular books are the subject of today’s post. 

Our friend Bronwen gave us Innosanto Nagara’s
A is for Activist
– a radical left wing alphabet primer sure to have your baby rising up against tyranny in no time. Imagine how rousing it is to read Nagara’s ode to the letter J:


“J is for Justice! 
Yay for Justice! 
Jia-Jing Jiang.
Juanita. Jamal.
Justice for the Janitors,
Justice for all!”

The next letter comes with a thoughtful reminder:

“Kings are fine for storytime.
Knights are fun to play.
But when we make decisions 
we will choose the people’s way!” 

My daughter Alice is still young enough that she inadvertently throws one of her little fists up above her head on occasion. At least I thought it was inadvertent at first; now I suspect she’s preparing to fight the power. 


The Color Kittens
, illustrated in bright, pastel hues by Alice and Martin Provensen, is a lesser-known book by the inimitable Margaret Wise Brown. In it, two kittens named Brush and Hush mix buckets of blue, yellow, and red paint to create “all the colors in the world.” The text shifts back and forth from prose to verse, for instance when Brush and Hush try to create green: “Green as cats’ eyes / Green as grass / By streams of water / Green as glass.” At one point the color kittens fall asleep and then things really get trippy. In their dream, their colors rush together as they imagine “a purple land / In a pale pink sea / Where apples fell / From a golden tree / And then a world of Easter eggs / That danced about on little short legs.” The plot of this book is less emotional than the Margaret Wise Brown of, say, The Runaway Bunny, but the linguistic rhythms are as inexplicably mesmerizing as those in Goodnight Moon. It’s a charming addition to Alice’s growing library. 


Growing up, our own loopy family favorite was The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, a book originally published in 1977. In it, a mustachioed man named Plumbean lives “on a street where all the houses were the same” until a seagull mysteriously drops a can of orange paint on his roof. Implored by his neighbors to paint over the splot, he decides instead to paint the house of his dreams by night. In the morning, his neighbors come out of their monotonous brown houses and behold Plumbean’s: “It was like a jungle. It was like an explosion.” The neighbors talk among themselves, saying “Plumbean has gushed his mush, lost his marbles, and slipped his hawser” – lines that are a joy to read aloud. One by one, they stay up all night in Plumbean’s garden, trying to convince him to return his house to its original, drab form, and one by one, they decide to paint their own houses to “look like all their dreams.” The results, illustrated in groovy, nineteen-seventies style, are magic. 

 My hope for Alice is, of course, that she will live a life that looks like all her dreams, as weird and wild as they might be. These books will surely encourage her in that direction.

Love, Emily

And love from me, crazed as I am!

Annie

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Greek gods as superheroes? Oh, yes.

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I adore William Steig's vocabulary. What a find!

In the midst of packing to move, with all the drama and unsettling that provides, we are deep into mythology right now. I've written before about my childhood obsession with D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. I broke it out for the first time close to four years ago with Eleanor, when she was too young for many of the stories but enjoyed the pictures. Two years later, I read a number of the myths with her -- the ones at the beginning, focused on the twelve Olympians, we read multiple times. Several weeks ago, we took the book out again, and Isabel was hooked. The D'Aulaires include illustrations on every page to satisfy my visual daughter.

Happily, it was a read-aloud to satisfy both Eleanor and Isabel at the same time. Most mornings and nights, we'd read together; sometimes Eleanor would read her own book, and I'd re-read Isabel one or two of the myths she requested. (And where was Will? Sometimes with Jeff; often playing on the floor or sitting on my lap and putting things down my shirt while I held the book open behind him; sometimes shutting the book and shoving his board books at me. Three is more complicated than two.)

After we'd finished the Greeks, cover to cover, we started in on D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, which your girls loved so much. Again, total buy-in from both girls (though Isabel asked, quite early in the book, "Where are all the goddesses?" Say what you will about the Greeks and their gender issues; they did a great job with equal representation.)

And then I remembered to look in my closet.

Two years ago, when Eleanor decided to dress up as Athena for Halloween, you gave us George O'Connor's graphic novel Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, with the warning that we should preview it to make sure it wasn't too violent for Eleanor. I flipped through it, saw a couple of images that made me think it might not be the right time, and put it on a shelf in my closet, meaning to read it through when I had the chance. Like I said, that was two years ago.

I was a fool to let it sit so long. George O'Connor's Olympians series is absolute genius. There are six so far: Zeus: King of the Gods, Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory, Hades: Lord of the Dead, Poseidon: Earth Shaker, and Aphrodite: Goddess of Love. They're coming out as a boxed set this October. We currently have them all out from the library, but we're going to need to buy them.

What makes these books so, so good? O'Connor is a Greek myth nerd from way back, and in writing and illustrating his graphic novels, he draws on lots of original sources. Reading his author's notes at the end of each book, it's clear that O'Connor has thought deeply about how to present each of the gods, choosing which aspects of their stories to include to shape a fully-rounded and complex picture of each of them. There is rich characterization here.

This is true particularly of the goddesses. O'Connor provides about as feminist a reading of Greek mythology as I think you can make, given the material. In Hades: Lord of the Dead, Persephone speaks up against being treated like a pawn by her kidnapper Hades and her mother Demeter. Ultimately, she enjoys the prospect of being Queen of the Underworld, and (in one of what I think are very few moments where O'Connor actually changes the source material) she chooses to return to Hades, rather than being forced to because she absentmindedly ate a few pomegranate seeds.

In O'Connor's telling, Hera is much more than just a jealous spouse, making life difficult for Zeus and his illegitimate children. She has a keen sense of humor, and seems very much in control of herself. Hera's tormenting of Heracles is depicted as a way to help him become the greatest hero on earth, and made more complex by the inclusion of an episode where she nurses him as an infant in order to save his life:


You may notice here that Heracles is dark-skinned. So is Aphrodite, and so are a host of other more minor characters -- there's some diversity going on, which is also nice.

O'Connor's illustrations are both thoughtful and gripping. The gods appear as Marvel-comics versions of themselves -- lots of rippling muscles and glaring faces, lots of action sequences when recounting the Olympians' many battles. But there are so many subtle touches. The Titans are dark and shadowy, their heads touching the sky, reddish clouds floating about their heads like hair:


Poseidon's son, the Cyclops Polyphemos, has a head modeled on the skull of an elephant, because O'Connor is drawing on the theory that the ancient Greeks discovered mastodon skulls and mistook the trunk hole for a single eye socket, giving rise to the legend of the Cyclopes:


I should note here that this episode in Poseidon:Earth Shaker is fairly graphic. I'm far less concerned about exposing my kids to violence in graphic novels after reading all of the Bone series with Eleanor and Isabel -- the last book, in particular, is quite bloody. Still, even Isabel paused over Polyphemos eating Odysseus's men two at a time, and Odysseus driving a sharpened stake into his eye. ("I don't like that part," she said, looking at it again.)

In some ways, I'm glad we're discovering the series now rather than two years ago. Eleanor is reading them on her own, and returning on her own to the excellent material included at the end of each book: O'Connor's footnotes, which he calls "G[r]eek Notes"; author's notes; character profile pages; questions for discussion. She came out of her room tonight after Isabel and Will were asleep and wanted to discuss Question 7 at the end of Aphrodite: Goddess of Love: "Very few people believe in the Greek gods today. Why do you think it is important that we still learn about them?" Eleanor's answer: because it's the way to pass the stories on to future generations, and then if people want to believe in them again, they can. Then she combed through the end pages and wrote a list of one of the sacred plants of each god before finally going to bed.

My heart sings.

Love, Annie