If there is another book I loved more than Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths when I was a kid, I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it was. Having lived in its pages from the second until about the fifth grade, I didn't really see it again until a chance encounter with a worn copy in a guest room of my friend Emily's house in Maryland, 20 years and 1,000 other well-loved books later.
It's the books we read, as much as anything, that make us who we are. This is less true now than it once was because of TV and the immediate access to movies in the house, but the right book in front of a child can make her forget all about Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus or Bratz or whatever is being peddled inescapably into your home and your children's minds.
Anyway, Greek Myths came back into my life, and I snuck away from dinner to read this wonderful book late into the night (I have not been invited back). Had I not found it again then, it might have taken me longer to introduce my 5-year-old daughter, Kate, to Greek mythology and have her fall in love with the wonderful, unique drawings (actually lithographs) of the D'Aulaires.
While the text is no slouch, for me this book is all about the drawings. It's hard to relate their style to anything familiar, except maybe the bizarre 19th-century work of William Blake; the illustrations are highly personal, folksy, and sophisticated all at once. They have real authorship. Demeter greeting Persephone as she comes back out of the earth is one of the more literal depictions, but as you sit and look at it you realize that the dark sky with wheeling crows represents winter and that the giant flowers springing up in the foreground don't make any sense at all in the picture, but of course they are...spring.
So it's actually full of weirdness, just so prettily drawn that one doesn't notice at first. But a child will.
Other myths in the book are similarly bizarre, though always lovable. Take the herd of cows with brooms tied to their tails, being driven by what appears to be a tiny Christ child (the mischievous baby Hermes). Or the horde of miseries emerging from Pandora's box, green-faced and miserable indeed, but funny-looking enough to hold a child's attention without disturbing her. I don't think there's anything in this book that's too scary for a 4-year-old, despite the highly adult content of some of these pagan myths if taken literally. The lovely drawings make the material palatable so kids can follow the plot and get interested from a very young age, making this a great book for 4-year-olds, who will love the pictures, and an equally great book for 10-year-olds, who will read it obsessively. Or for 30-year-olds who disappear into their room with it for the weekend...
If there's one illustration that sums up the D'Aulaire style, it's Perseus rescuing Andromeda. This scene is definitively rendered on film in Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion classic Clash of the Titans (1981), but long before the film, there was this most original depiction of beauty, virility, Medusa's head, and the sea monster. Winning, as usual, the jackpot in the strangeness sweepstakes, the D'Aulaires' monster actually has eyelashes and what appears to be a human mouth-making it quite clear that this monster is a?girl. Not as lovely as Andromeda, this kraken, but quite an effective way to defuse the terror of the situation for a very young reader and make a child wonder whether this creature is really all bad or just a wild thing trapped in a difficult situation. And all shown in such lovely pastels.
So don't be fooled by how naive some of the drawings first appear?the spell they cast on a child, on my child as they did on me, is proof that these illustrators know exactly how to make something interesting even if that means making it look a little childlike itself.
The proof? Kate's relentless fascination with the baby centaur being spanked, a detail in a minor and somewhat obscure (and by the book's standards, crude) image, but that's her favorite.
Okay-that, and the girlie sea monster.