In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger 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.

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

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