Another quick book recommendation

Since my son left his math book at the dentist’s office, pretty much all we’ve done in home school is a little spelling, a craft or two (you can pretend I didn’t say that if it makes you feel inadequate.  You wouldn’t feel inadequate if you saw our crafts, though), and read The Odyssey retold for children by Geraldine McCaughrean.

Sometimes I read, and sometimes the kids read aloud.  Kids who read silently far above grade level often don’t know how to read aloud, so this is a good exercise; and it also lets you get something done (like making lunch) while home schooling.  It’s also a good way of finding out that your mostly-excellent reader has a few kinks to iron out, phonics-wise.  (Translation:  the kid wouldn’t know a schwa from a hole in the ground.)

Here’s a passage we just read from this very engaging retelling, to give you an idea of the style:

By the light of lightning bolts which rained down around him, Odysseus saw the frightened, colourless eyes of fishes, and the suckered arms of reaching squid.  The waves that folded over him were shot through with eels and peppered with sharp barnacles and razorshells.  The troughs that swallowed him were deeper and darker than Charybdis, and the currents beneath dragged him three times round the ocean like dead Hector was dragged three times round the walls of Troy.

Pretty good, eh?  Nice and rhythmic for reading aloud, but not too complicated.  At the end of one chapter, my six-year-old son asked his eight-year-old brother, “Do you think Odysseus will make it home?  Mama, CAN I LOOK AHEAD?” and his brother said, “No, no, don’t find out!  I don’t know either!”  They haven’t been this excited since there was a dead mole in the sandbox.

Oh, and the illustrations in this book are wild and satisfying, too.  There are a few naked women — Sirens and whatnot — so you will have to use your judgment.  I didn’t want my son to be exposed to the unclothed female form, so when we got to that part, I just hid the book behind the baby, who, um, was nursing.

One final note:  I love ancient Greece.  I mean, I really, really love it.  A few weeks ago, I asked the six-year-old if he wanted to read Bible stories or Greek myths.  He chose Bible stories.  And I tried to talk him out of it.  Yes, I did.  Obviously, I’m not warping him too badly — I mean, he did choose the Bible stories — but it looks like I have a few kinks of my own to iron out.


  1. You should also look up Odd Bodkin’s oral performance. It opens with a spine-tingling portrayal of the Trojan Horse incident, with conversations between Odysseus and his men in the horse.

    Numerous voices, all conveyed by Bodkin’s himself in real time, like Homer himself at a campfire.

  2. I bought the set of Geraldine McCaughrean Heroes books a while back…as I recall, I was loading up on books and magazines on some special offer from Carus Publishing. (Their flagship magazine, Cricket, was a childhood favorite of mine…my kiddos now subscribe to several of their titles.) Really good stuff.

    I also love ancient Greece. Add to that a love of role-playing games (many fond memories of junior high and Dungeons & Dragons), and you’ll understand why one of my favorite things recently was to discover “Mazes & Minotaurs”.

    It’s a re-imagining of D&D, sparked by a little exercise in uchronia posted on RPGnet, depicting this world-changing conversation between the inventors of D&D:


    Gary: “Hey, Dave, dude! Put that army of German pikemen away, I’ve got this mind-bending idea!”

    Dave: “Dude?”

    Gary: “Yeah, like we just get out one figure each and, like, roleplay it. Give the lil’dude a name n’ every thing … use the dice.”

    Dave: “Wha… these average dice?”

    Gary: “No man – I never understood those. I like my dice to go from 1 to 6 without missin any of the numbers out. Know what I mean?”

    Dave: “**** Gary. Have you been sucking the lead out’a these miniatures?”

    Gary: “We could use one of these crusaders. This Byzantine nobleman. This yeoman archer. And this 10 point bishop with armour and mace. We can send em to fight dragons and **** … down dungeons! Wha’d you think dude?”

    Dave: “Dungeons … and dragons? C’mon Gary that’s lame. I’m bored sick of all these Medieval miniatures! I’ve just finished painting my Greek armies for the Peloponnesian Wars – let’s use those.”

    Gary: “OK”


    A brilliant and crazy Frenchman took this idea and ran with it, and years later there is now this:

    (And it’s all free for anyone to print and use.)

    • P.S. Thank goodness that comment got through. I was sure it was going to be captured for further review by some geekiness filter or something…

    • Oh, um, I don’t know – I’m terrible at figuring out reading levels. I guess I wouldn’t recommend it for unsupervised reading until about grade 4 or 5? I may be way off. Our home school is terrible and lousy, but we do turn out excellent readers. That’s why I recommended it for reading aloud — you can stop and explain unfamiliar words or complicated situations. I’m a big believer in reading things slightly above their level of comprehension, if it’s exciting enough — whets their appetite,and it’s much more fun for the adult involved.

    • 5th grade would be my estimated threshhold year. For that age and a couple years younger, reading aloud to them should work well; for that age and a couple years older, independent reading is likely to go fine.

  3. I didn’t know she covered The Odyssey, but Geraldine McCaughrean’s re-telling of the Canterbury Tales (also illustrated by Ambrus) was my FAVOURITE book as a kid. Absolutely wonderful. She managed to keep all the humour but tone down the dirty bits (e.g. someone sleeping with someone else’s wife is replaced with a kiss between the two). I’ve bought it for two of my friends’ kids so far and it has been extremely well loved. ISBN 0192781235, if anyone’s looking!

  4. I’m reading her rendition of The Canterbury Tales right now and enjoying it very well (which is more than I can say for the version I read in high school and can’t even remember). This one sounds like a good boy-hook, too. 🙂

  5. My youngest son, 17 years younger than his older bro and nine years younger than his next older sis, has inherited a pile of ‘girl books’.

    He’s nearly seven and we’re looking for books to replace some of the books which I wouldn’t now let ANY child read (hangs head in shame. Apparently I’ve ironed out an issue or two!).

    When he’s a little older, I’ll try to remember this book. It sounds great. I’ll tell his oldest sister (who now has a BA Eng.). It’s a classic. She’ll get it for him!

    BTW…I no longer remember what a schwa is, except that it has something to do with pronunciation. When I mention diacritical marks (I had an awesome second grade teacher!) to my kids, they just look at me strangely.

  6. Sorry about the density, but — were kidding about the unclothed female form? If not, what’s your line of reasoning on that? Same with paintings and sculptures? Thanks

    • Kidding? No — my son is six, and pretty much already acts like Harpo Marx where women are concerned. We predict that it will be difficult for him, as he gets older, to keep his hands to himself and his mind in the right place, so we don’t want to make it harder for him by letting him stare at pictures of naked women, no matter how artistic.

      I understand there is a difference between naked and nude, and I don’t approve of going around putting fig leaves on paintings. On the other hand, there is such a thing as knowing your own limitations. I’m a 36-year-old woman, and there are some days I can study a nude statue and revel in the exquisite lines — and there are other days when I think, “Okay, move along now, S.” It’s not about the quality or artistry of the piece of art — it’s about one’s response to it.

      • Oh, also, the illustrations in this particular book are from the 70’s and are fairly lurid. I don’t have a policy of tearing out any illustration of naked women that he is likely to see! I just hide the ones I think he would stare at too long.

  7. Along those lines, you should check out Rosemary Sutcliffe’s “Black Ships before Troy.” It’s a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Illiad, and another great read-aloud.

    Actually, anything by Sutcliffe is fantastic for independent readers, teens, or adults. She writes amazing historical fiction, much of it from the Roman era and early Britain.

  8. Oh my gosh you make me laugh! When my older kids where little they would always find the one teeny tiny naked person in every book; Arnold Lobel’s Nursery Rhymes and Where’s Waldo…. My college age daughters were teasing me the other day about drawing clothes on the naked slave girls in the Usborne Time Travelers books. They always thought it was so funny. It just seemed like once we got the clothes on the slave girls we could get on to learning something from the rest of the book. But then again Usborne books don’t have any illustrations that anyone would be tempted to call “art”. I come from a family of artists and can appreciate nudes as well as the next guy, but when you get down to the heart of the matter protecting a child’s innocence trumps Art Appreciation any time.
    Thanks for these book recommendations. Your blog is hilarious. We where in particular hysterics this week watching the “OH Kentucky.” blog post from a few weeks back.

  9. Crazy love for Greek Myth here, too. I practically danced into my Greek Myth class in college for each meeting, aced every single test, and contributed so much to class discussion, I’m pretty sure my prof thought I was hitting on him.

    Fantastic rec. Thanks, Simcha!

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