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In the Classroom: Oh My Gods! December 12, 2011

Posted by ccbooks in Classroom Books.
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It is now December which means….it’s time to study Ancient Greece in my class! Teaching Greece has become a little less fun, now that so many of my students have read the Percy Jackson series and can name all the gods, both Greek and Roman (although there is still MAJOR debate about how to pronounce ‘Hephaestus’). I used to have only one or two students going systematically through all the books in the Greece and Rome section of my library; now most students have read at least one of those books. Which means, of course, it’s time to buy new books!

When I heard that Donna Jo Napoli was writing an overview of Greek myths, I got very excited. I have always been a fan of Napoli’s work, as she was the first author to really open my eyes to the possibilities in exploring fairy tales and myths from different perspectives. Her books Zel, The Magic Circle, Spinners and Beast made me more aware of the power of stories.

Let me be clear, though, that my heart is still with D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. That was the book I memorized when I was 10 and it’s still a great read aloud for my class each year. So thorough, with so many minor gods and heroes that other collections leave out…Napoli, though. This collection of myths has beautiful prose–witness the following quote from the section about Gaia:

“Rules of nature? They didn’t operate. Indeed, there was no nature. There was nothing reliable in this turmoil except lack of order. And lack is the essence of need.

Out of that original need came the mother force, Gaia. All on her own. Need can do that.”

Gorgeous. Napoli also clears up a few lingering mysteries, such as Aphrodite’s parentage, details about Zeus and Hera’s relationship, and even a few theories about Athena’s birth (has anyone else put forth the theory that the men of ancient civilizations were trying to take away the supreme role of women–giving birth–by writing about gods who came from their father’s bodies?). The pictures, by Christina Bali, are also beautiful and invite repeated viewings. Sidebars with additional details and connections to science and history are included throughout, so that even the most rabid Rick Riordan fan will find something new to learn in this fantastic book.

Unfortunately, mythology is not considered essential to my curriculum on Ancient Greece. My students will not get asked questions about particular gods on their standardized tests or be required to explain the purpose of mythology to the Greek civilization. So while I usually read about the major Olympian gods and a few of my favorite heroes, I also look for ways to emphasize the big idea of the unit, which is that the Greeks came up with many ideas and innovations which are still with us today.

Lise Lunge-Larsen’s new book, Gifts from the Gods, is a perfect tool for this task. In short, dramatic sections, accompanied by detailed illustrations (sometimes with speech bubbles), Lunge-Larsen explains the mythological history’s of various words from the English language. Each tale is given a quote from a children’s book as an introduction, showing how the word is used in writing today. Some words come from Greek myths, some from Roman myths and some, such as ‘genius’ illustrate how a story, and a word, changed in meaning over time. End notes to each section give additional words that derive from the characters introduced and an author’s note explains more about why so many words come from these stories. A chart showing the corresponding Greek and Latin names is included, along with a selected bibliography, web sources and notes from the artist.

The pictures are phenomenal, as you might expect from Gareth Hinds, who created a wonderful graphic novel version of The Odyssey last year. While the Virginia State Board of Education considers democracy and architectural features such as columns to be the most important legacies of the Ancient Greeks for the United States today, I think that words and stories are just as important, if not more so, and I can’t wait to share this book with my class as proof.

Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrations by Christina Balit. Published October 2011 by National Geographic Society.

Gifts from the Gods: Ancient words and wisdom from Greek and Roman mythology by Lise Lunge-Larsen, illustrated by Gareth Hinds. Published October 2011 by Houghton Mifflin.

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