The Iliad and The Odyssey Retold by Gillian Cross
“This is the story of a bitter quarrel between two proud and powerful men. The quarrel that grew into a war that brought death to hundreds of brave heroes and destroyed one of the great cities of the world. And yet it started with something very small...”
We’ve slowly begun carrying more and more books, and it’s been a lopsided, staggering journey.
One of my favourites of our growing children’s offerings is the boxed set of The Iliad and The Odyssey, retold by Gillian Cross and illustrated by Neil Packer. They are re-tellings of Homer’s classic epics, and they such a great way for kids to begin listening to these tales, looking at the beautiful illustrations, reading them on their own.
This book is officially recommended for ages 8+, and Caleb is 5, so there is a bit of a gap, but I’m okay with gaps. Sometimes age recommendations are based on the child’s reading on their own, but most children are able to understand what’s being read aloud to them much better than what they can decode for themselves, which is definitely the case for Caleb.
We’ve finished The Odyssey and have just begun the Iliad. There are parts I explained to him again and I’m sure there are still parts that are a bit fuzzy, but for the most part, he carried through, he got the gist of the tale, wrapped up in the terrifying creatures, the ocean journey. We will read it again next year or when he’s 8 or 10 or whenever the opportunity comes around and it will be a different experience for him then. For now, we are introducing the names and the stories, doing some explaining, looking at the pictures together.
The story-telling, the language, is elegant and simple without being “dumbed down.” It’s eloquent and powerful still, catches so much of the nuance of the characters and the story, and together with the illustrations, these books are such a wonderful, rich entry-way into these classic stories.
And the illustrations! They go together with the stories so well. They reflect and enhance the story, whole new images and ways of looking at things, understanding what’s happening. They are wild, spooky, bright, dark, weird, frightening, curious. Illustrations in children’s books are so important, and in these ones, they are big and beautiful, which brings so much to reading this with a child. Caleb is still at an age where illustrations are really important to him (when does that age end? Does it?) and I can’t imagine what sort of things he’s seeing in his head while I’m reading aloud to him.
I love these big books we can pore over together in bed, on the terrace, on the top bunk. This in particular is a high quality edition, one I hope Caleb and Naomi will cherish for years to come. The illustrations are colourful and vivid and dark and bright. The books themselves are heavy and the pages are thick, we can hear and feel each time we turn a page. What a gift they would make for a child.
One of the things about this pandemic, and with school being out and having all this time together without all the normal things that take up time, is that it’s given us more opportunity to read together. Before this, we occasionally squeezed in ten minutes during an after school snack, or while waiting in the car, but otherwise it was a few chapters before bed and then lights out.
I sometimes get flack for it (wouldn’t they rather get LEGO? Shouldn’t they be spending more time playing and having fun?), and I’m always trying to find the right balance, which tilts one way or the other depending on the day. Other than being loved, though, it’s one of the greatest gifts I can give my children, reading lots to them. I want them to have the language, the stories, the artwork, the imagination, the morally ambiguous characters, the adventures, the terrifying trolls, the evil adults, the long journeys home.
Do I want him to read all the classics? Of course that would be great if he wanted to and did. But I mostly just want him, and Naomi, to read widely and well and to find things they love to read and stories that take them places. While I have them young and captive, while they still believe in my story-telling, I’m going to try and expose them to everything I can, things that they maybe wouldn’t try on their own, but that might actually end up being a story they love.
Naomi is 2, and so still very much too young to get much sense out of Roald Dahl, but I’m always surprised by what she’s picked up. “Jacob Two-Two!” she yells as she runs down the hall. Mercy Watson, another perennial favourite for her. Being the younger one she has had a lot of eavesdropping on stories about superheroes and normal heroes and antiheroes. She does a lot of pretend reading, which I guess is the first step to the real thing.
And a bonus tip: I’ve discovered that the real key to keeping your kids browsing through books, flipping through all the pages, reading/“reading” is to provide good snacks. Cut up the fruits, crackers, cookies, extra napkins. If I invest the 10 minutes to prepping all the snacks, and setting up piles of books, they can get lost for quite a while. I guess it goes without saying, then, that I’m not someone who is too fussy about keeping the books pristine.*
*This isn’t even true. I do actually get fruitlessly mad when people/kids spill things on my own books, which happens all the time. While Jon and I were dating, he soaked one of my books that he borrowed from me with an accidentally opened bottle of water. After the water soaking, it swelled up to twice its size and then the cover ripped off, and yet I still married him, which is a testament to how understanding I can be as a human being. I think I’ve also just learned that there are a limited number of battles I can wage at any given time.