Heroes and Greek Myths for kids

posted in: Jane Ray, Sally Pomme Clayton | 11

Greek Myths: Stories of Sun, Stone and Sea by Sally Pomme Clayton, illustrated by Jane Ray is my choice to go with today’s Picture Book Month theme of Heroes, because there are few collections of stories packed with more heroes than the library of stories which make up Greek mythology.

Renowned oral storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton has brought together ten Greek myths and retells them in a format for reading aloud to 4-8 year olds. Her selection includes Pandora’s box, Perseus and Medusa, Midas and his golden touch and Orpheus and his trip to the underworld. Each story stands independent from the others, as separate chapters which need not be read in order, each just the right length for a story at bedtime.

A minimum of one full page illustration by Jane Ray illuminates each myth; Ray’s illustrations are sumptuous and rich, seemingly full of gold but with echoes of Greek design found on decorated pottery, with compositions which surely owe something to her background as a card designer: they are perfectly constructed individual scenes, surrounded by decorative frames. Like Clayton’s selected stories, there is no narrative thread linking the individual pictures; this book isn’t really a picture book, but rather a book with (beautiful) illustrations.

The language is accessible (though if I’m totally honest I had hoped for something a with more cadence and rhythm from Sally Pomme Clayton given her stunning oral storytelling skills) and the illustrations are beautiful, grown up and yet still magical. I think it is a shame that no pronunciation guide is included in the book (there is an index of gods and heroes), and yet space is found for a list of sources – no doubt important to the author, but probably not as relevant to the children or parents reading/listening to this book as help with some unfamiliar names would have been.

Having read Greek Myths: Stories of Sun, Stone and Sea with my girls, we went and pulled off our shelves other versions of the Greek myths to see how they compare. The following is an entirely random and personal selection of books – if you have other children’s versions of these myths to recommend, please do so in the comments.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths is great if you want an fairly comprehensive but child friendly introduction to all the key characters in Greek mythology. The illustrations may well appeal kids who themselves love to draw as the pencil illustrations have quite a child-like, sketchbook quality. This book also tries to create an overarching narrative, making it more enjoyable if it is read from front to back, rather than dipped in and out of. This also results in it at times feeling somewhat convoluted as there are so many threads to tie up and connections to be made.

Marcia Williams’ Greek Myths, with its comic strip re-tellings of eight legends is full of humour and great for newly independent readers to enjoy themselves. This version has none of the threat and menace which some re-tellings have.

Gifts from the Gods by Lise Lunge-Larsen, illustrated by Gareth Hinds does a brilliant job of making several Greek myths seem relevant to modern readers: the stories behind phrases or words we know from every day language (such as “Achilles heel”, or “fury”) are beguilingly retold alongside lots of illustrations.

For older children Black Ships before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff and Shapeshifters by Adrian Mitchell, both illustrated by Alan Lee are spectacular. Each contains tremendous storytelling (which does not shy away from some of the violence and horror in the myths) accompanied by Kate Greenaway Medal award winning illustration. The former is a retelling of the Iliad whilst the latter is a reworking of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (adults shouldn’t miss Ted Hughes’ version of the same stories).

If your child prefers non-fiction then Mythology in the Templar Ology series could be the key to getting them interested in the stories that underpin a lot of our cultural heritage.

My kids were actually first exposed to Greek myths through the audiobook version of The Orchard Book of Greek Myths by Geraldine McCaughrean (the book version is illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark), an excellent collection of tales told with excitement which we return to often, though perhaps not as often as the hilarious, riotous audiobook versions of Tony Robinson’s Odysseus and Odysseus II which are brilliantly funny, pacy and entertaining stories (though with modern references that some will no doubt find annoying).

Having pulled all these of our shelves we went back to Greek Myths: Stories of Sun, Stone and Sea and enjoyed it again. In this wider context I found that it was Ray’s stunning illustrations which really added something to our Greek myths collection. For my money, her startling, terrifying, beautiful illustration of Medusa alone makes this book worth seeking out.

Inspired by the story of Prometheus and Epimetheus who brought humankind into being by making little people out of clay, we got out our plasticine (modelling clay) and made our own set of humans.

Whilst making people we listened to:

  • Holding Out For A Hero by Bonnie Tyler
  • Heroes by David Bowie
  • We Don’t Need Another Hero by Tina Turner
  • And for something a little less bombastic and more specifically for the kids: The Hero in You by Ellis Paul

  • Other activities which would go well alongside reading the books mentioned in today’s post include:

  • Creating your own Hero with this online programme
  • Making golden apples – these feature in several different Greek myths, and would look lovely as a Christmas ornament. You could use salt dough to make the apples and then paint them gold, or do apple prints (with apples sliced in half) using gold paint.
  • Create a panoply of Greek gods out of toilet rolls using the free downloads from dltk-kids!

  • Do you have a favourite collection of Greek myths for children?

    Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book I’ve reviewed today from the publisher. I was under no obligation to review the books and I received no money for this post.

    11 Responses

      • Zoe

        Hi Bethany, I’ve not seen the Osborne series – what do you think of them? Would be interested to know.

    1. choxbox

      Love the colourful vibrant set of humans you have created!

      My 7-year old is also into myth-mania at the moment. We have been reading some of the ones in your list, and also an Usborne compilation as well as Robert Sabuda’s version which is incredible.

      She also loves Indian mythology – Ramayana and Mahabharata. If you ever venture there I’d reco Samhita Arni’s Mahabharata: A Child’s View. In fact who knows – we might meet some day and I’ll get you a copy!

    2. choxbox

      Yes it is completely illustrated by Samhita herself – she wrote and illustrated the book when she was 11 years old.

      The illustrations are simple but absolutely perfect for the story.

    3. charlotte

      One reason D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths will always be my favorite is that it draws so heavily from actual works of art–it was rather wonderful when studying Greek sculpture in college to recognize so many pieces of statuary from the images that were already embedded in my mind!
      charlotte recently posted..The Brightworking, by Paul B. Thompson

    4. Catherine

      At your suggestion Zoe I bought ‘Stories of Sun, Stone and Sea’ for my 5 year old. She and her little brother (3) adored it – perhaps because of the threat and menace within, rather than despite it! We recently moved abroad and the book was mistakenly added to the ‘storage’ pile rather than brought with us, but since they keep asking for it I think Father Christmas may need to bring another copy.

      • Zoe

        Dear Catherine,

        Thank you so much for letting me know about this – I’m delighted to hear your children adore the book. I hope you are settling in well in your new home.

    5. Simon Spence

      You might also be interested in our Greek Myth books, called “Early Myths”. They are aimed at younger kids, ages 4-8 years old.

      We have three books to date:
      Odysseus, Perseus and Jason & the Golden Fleece.

      Perseus won a prize at the Moonbeam Children’s Awards at the end of last year.

      Our multimedia books are available on the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and we also have versions as audiobooks and paperbacks.

      We have some free copies if anyone would like to take a look and write a review:

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