Sunday, December 11, 2016

Some Holiday Gift Book Suggestions (Kid Tested and Approved)

The four beautiful books below make ideal holiday gifts for any young reader who is interested in mythology, legends and tales. I read them with a group of reluctant readers who started out with no interest and quickly found themselves drawn into the stories. I began by reading the stories to them, but soon we were taking turns reading to each other and then discussing them. The kids were very surprised to see how much the universal themes found in these folktales still resonated in today's world.

Tales from the Arabian Nights: Stories of Adventure, Magic, Love, and Betrayal 
Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Christina Balit
National Geographic Children's Books, 2016, 208 pages, age 10+
Though the original stories told by Scheherazade number around 1001 give or take, Donna Jo Napoli has included the best of 25 tales in this volume, and most are the best Scheherazade had to offer to Shah Rayar in order to stay alive. When the Shah vowed to marry a new bride each night and put her to death the next morning, Scheherazade vowed to put a stop to this and she did it through the power of storytelling. My kids, already familiar with Disney's version of Aladdin, loved reading his tale included in this volume, and discovering the stories about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, though these were not part of the original 1001 Arabian Nights.

The characters in Scheherazade's tales come from different cultures all over the ancient and medieval Middle East, ranging from North Africa to South Asia, and a map has been included to help readers orient themselves. My young readers really liked that the stories were about a wide range of people - rich and powerful, poor, uneducated and powerless, but for all "self-reliance and resourcefulness are [considered to be] prized qualities" Napoli writes in the Introduction (pg6), so that a person's circumstances can and do change as the tales will bear out.

Napoli has rewritten these tales in language used is lyrical, clear and straightforward, making them accessible to all readers. In addition to the map, she has included a Postscript, a list of Sources and Bibliography for further exploration of the Arabian Nights, and a grid showing the origins of the tales she used. OK, my kids were not so interested in that, but I was. We all really liked the sidebars that are included throughout the book in the shape of a bookmark giving more cultural and factual information about a point in each of the stories. Discover, for example, the value of nothing and why it is so important, even today. Or the belief in the power of words to heal and transform a being, including the ancient roots of the word abracadabra.

Accompanying the 25 tales are 70 bold, breathtakingly energetic paintings in an Art Deco style. They are done in watercolor, gouache and gold ink in a palette of mainly blues, golds and oranges, and radiating all the adventure, mystery and magic associated with the ancient world:

Tales from the Arabian Nights is fresh, fun and informative. It is a wonderful introduction to a work of literature young readers will run into again and again in their high school and college careers and provides them with a good sense of the original One Thousand and One Nights.

You may want to read the very interesting interview Julie Danielson at Kirkus did with Donna Jo Napoli about Tales from the Arabian Nights and "Making Old Stories New." You can find it HERE

Tales of the Arabian Nights was sent to me courtesy of MM Publicity

Young readers whose fancy was tickled by the Arabian Nights might find themselves looking for more folktales and myths of the ancient and medieval worlds. If that's the case, they can't go wrong with these earlier books by Donna Jo Napoli and Christina Balit. I took these out of the library, and my young readers and I read them just as we did Tales of the Arabian Nights, taking turns reading the tales aloud and discussing each one.

Treasury of Norse Mythology: Stories of Intrigue, Trickery, Love, and Revenge
Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Christina Balit 
National Geographic Children's Books, 2015, 192 pages, age 10+
Today's kids may be familiar with names like the wise Odin, his son and thunder god Thor, the wily trickster Loki, and the Valkyries, escorts of fallen soldiers to Valhalla, from movies or comic books, but these gods and spirits have their roots in ancient Norse myths.  In these 18 tales included in this Treasure of Norse Mythology, readers will be introduced to the adventures of all the key Nordic mythological figures caught up in a web of greed, revenge, and lust, and all written in the same easy, lyrical language that Donna Jo Napoli is so capable of. There are tales about the creation and the cosmos, all populated by warring gods, goddesses, monsters, shape-shifters, and even some disputing humans. These classic Norse stories will come to life for young readers under Napoli's skillful retelling.

The collaboration of Napoli and Christina Balit proves to be a success once again in the book. To create illustrations that reflect the cold, snowy geophysical landscape of this ancient Nordic region, Balit has used a palette of icy blues, whites and gold, all in her signature Art Deco style. And a real bonus is that the illustrations are annotated to further help the reader.

Young readers will again find lots of interesting sidebars with relevant cultural and/or factual information, a map and timeline of the ancient Norse world, a list of the characters included in the stories told here, and a Bibliography for further reading. Don't skip the Introduction or the Note on Norse Names at the front of the book, both are very helpful for understanding what follows.   Readers of Rick Riordan's "Magnus Chase" series will especially enjoy reading these tales, and those (like some of the kids I read this with) whose interest in Scandinavian myths has been peaked by this Treasure of Norse Mythology will definitely be interested in reading that series, too. And isn't that what reading is all about?

Treasury of Norse Mythology was borrowed (and renewed a few time) from the NYPL

Treasure of Egyptian Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Monsters & Mortals
Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Christina Balit
National Geographic Children's Books, 2013, 192 pages, age 8+
I have to admit, I was never personally enthralled by Egyptian Mythology, even though they are the ones I probably know the most about.  So I was curious to read these 20 stories retold by Donna Jo Napoli. And no one was more surprised than I was that I found them fascinating. I credit that with Napoli's intelligent storytelling style.

As always, Napoli begins with the creation story, in this case the self-creation of Ra, the Sun God, followed the creation of his children and grandchildren, that leads to the Great Pesedjet (a hierarchy of 9 important gods and goddesses). This is followed by the proliferation of more gods and mortals, pharaohs and queens, and yes, they are all caught in the web of very real emotions like jealousy, passion, greed, and the desire for power. The tales end with what was our favorite - the story of how the pyramids came into being during the Third Dynasty and of Imhotep, God of Medicine and Architecture. It was Imhotep who came up with the idea that Egypt's human rulers, the Pharaohs, should be buried in a tomb that would last forever, and the pyramids fit the bill for using mastabas, mud baked by the sun on the River Nile. One of the interesting aspects to these stories is the way they explained how much natural phenomena impacted the lives of humans at that time.

In keeping with all their collaborative books on myths and legends, Christina Balit's Art Deco illustrations have taken on a decidedly ancient Egyptian feel. Part of the story of the Great Pesedjet explains how Ra created nine colors for the world that formed the colors of a rainbow - there was gold, red, bright orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet and lastly, silver. Balit has skillfully incorporated these colors in her illustrations throughout the Treasury of Egyptian Mythology.

As in all her other books about myths and legends, there are sidebars with cultural and factual information. The illustrations are also annotated, which helps a great deal, and there is a map and time line of ancient Egypt, a spread of the cast of characters in the tales (which was a real help to my readers), a lengthy but important Postscript, a Bibliography and list of places to find more information. The Introduction by Napoli and Preface of the History of Egyptian Names should not be skipped.

My kids were very interested in these myths, so we took a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to explore their Egyptian collection, including a visit to an ancient tomb. If you are ever in NYC, #metkids is a fun thing to do. Or check out museums in your area.

Treasury of Egyptian  Mythology was borrowed (and renewed a few time) from the NYPL

Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & Monsters
Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Christina Balit
National Geographic Children's Books, 2011, 192 pages, age 8+
I suspect that the most familiar myths for many of us are are those from Greek mythology - Zeus, Aphrodite, Orion. Hermes, Jason - gods, heroes and mortals.

And once again, Napoli begins at the beginning with the ancient Greek creation stories of Mother Earth Gaia, Father Heaven Uranus and their son, the Titan King Cronus, who was the father of Zeus, King of the Gods, Napoli creates an energetic history of the great deities of heaven with lesser deities and earthly mortals, and all their deeds, some cruel, others heroic. She ends with what may be the most famous of Greek myths - the story of the beautiful Helen of Troy. Helen willingly left Sparta for Troy with Paris, even though she was supposed to marry King Menelaus.  Menelaus wanted her back and set off to rescue her, leading to the very long, very violent Trojan War. She was eventually rescued from Troy by a cunningly disguised giant gift, a Trojan horse containing Greek warriors.

Christina Balit stayed with a palette of bold blues, gold and oranges for her Art Deco style illustrations in this Treasury of Greek Mythology. The illustrations not only pull the tales together, but extend them further and offer much that will (and did) inspire conversation and speculation.

Greek myths, with its many gods, goddesses, mortal and monsters can feel a little convoluted and confusing to the beginner and sometimes the time frames of these stories did baffle the kids I read them with, but again, because some of the characters were familiar thanks to popular culture renditions of them, the kids were able to appreciate what they read here and it helped that Napoli includes all kinds of additional information.

Besides her Introduction and full page Olympus Family Tree, there is map of Greece, a Time Line. a Cast of Characters to help navigate the stories, a Bibliographic Note and suggestions for finding more information, which we used.

Treasury of Egyptian  Mythology was borrowed (and renewed a few time) from the NYPL

I had a lot of fun reading these books with an enthusiastic group of kids. I thought each book was so well written and researched, and to their credit, Donna Jo Naopli's language was always clear and straightforward. She never condescended to her readers, or oversimplified what the content of the myths presented. Even when the kids struggled with unfamiliar names, places and stories, they were able to work through their difficulties. Christina Balit's illustrations are beautiful and sophisticated works that gave the kids a better understanding of the original art we saw at the museum.  So, when I finished writing this, I asked my Kiddo, who is not longer a kid, to read it, since mythology has been a passion of hers since 4th grade (the age of the kids I read these with). What did she have to say? "Could you get me these books for Christmas?"

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