Jan/Feb 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

Rediscovering the Old Stories

Review by Colleen Mondor

I love a good collection of myths, and I have to say Cynthia Rylant's artfully designed The Beautiful Stories of Life: Six Greek Myths, Retold is one of the prettiest packages I've come across in a long time. With exceedingly elegant black and white illustrations by Carson Ellis (best known for doing the album covers for the Decembrists), this small collection is perfectly sized for handy reading and truly as beautiful as its subject matter. Rylant retells some popular tales, and others less well known but the mix works and hinges mostly on romantic visions of life and love (although all do not end well). She includes Pandora, Persephone, Orpheus, Pygmalion, Narcissus and Psyche and in each case explores what makes humans and gods equally fallible. Nothing new is revealed (as it should be) but the dreamy illustrations and adult way of approaching longing and love (and the foolishness that accompanies both) will be very appealing to middle grade readers who are ready to leave the picture book tellings behind for some more realistic fare. Any myth lover will like this one but romantic types in particular will find it appealing, which I suppose explains why I enjoyed it so thoroughly.

Teri Sloat begins There Was an Old Man Who Painted the Sky with a note about "the discovery of paintings on the ceiling of the Alatmira Cave in 1879." The artwork was discovered by a young girl, Maria, who accompanied her amateur archaeologist father. The paintings were later determined to be between 11,000 and 19,000 years old. From this factual leaping off point, illustrator Stefano Vitale fills the pages with deep rich blues, purples, yellows and oranges as he draws the animals and people that Maria found. The text tells the story of "an old man who painted the night" but the little girl who looked up to see the paintings wonders, "...I don't know how he painted the sky—It's up so high!"

Slowly, There Was An Old Man become an exploration of the origins of art, of the old man/creator who "painted the water to wash over earth" and "painted the night across the great sky" and in the end, when he was done:

...handed his paints down to woman and man.
They painted their children, their sisters and brothers
They happily painted themselves and each other."

Grounded in history and real cave paintings, There Was an Old Man Who Painted the Sky is certainly a beautiful book (I can't stress how gorgeous the illustrations are) but it is also a thinking book, mirrored between Maria's questions and the reader's own observations. The connection of artwork across thousands of years—to people whose existence we can barely imagine—is huge and yet Sloat brings it down to manageable size with her story. This is a book that will likely prompt conversation about what is different and the same with people across time and thus space. Maria makes the leap outside, to the greater creation question, something common in myths and legends and the drawing of new constellations mirroring the artwork is a nice touch.

Based on the short animated film of the same name (made by her parents), Linda Zeman-Spaleny's Lord of the Sky is a retelling of how Raven brought the sun to the people of the Pacific Northwest. This version of the fairly familiar story is a bit more intense than others, although it begins with a peaceful setting and a young boy who loved the visiting ravens and shared his food with them. One day some of the other children threw stones at the ravens however as they tried to steal the fishermen's catch. The boy tried to stop them, but one of the ravens was killed. In punishment darkness came to the land and only the Lord of the Sky was able to help them. No one volunteered to make the dangerous journey to seek his help except the boy. It is that quest to apologize and bring back the sun which Zeman-Spaleny tells through the second half of the book.

As readers of Pacific Northwest myths are aware, Raven figures prominently in their tales. He is alternately a trickster and wise soul but always the center of Native American stories for the region. Zeman-Spaleny does a solid job with this classic, making the early ravens obnoxious but loveable whereas the thunderbird is both powerful and terrifying. He chooses to be kind or cruel, and it is only the honesty and determination of the boy which brings out his good side. Illustrator Ludmila Zeman's illustrations portray the strength of the story and its characters, with a palette of blacks, browns and autumn tones that captures the setting perfectly. Another nice addition is the brief opening note from the author which explains her own history with British Columbia totem poles, the "wooden picture books from Canada." A glossy rendering of a classic; this is excellent mythology and delightful story-telling.

With Imagine a Dragon author Laurence Pringle has collected dragon stories from around the world, explaining in the brief introduction how people literally "imagined dragons" after hearing about huge snakes and reptiles from faraway places. The Egyptians believed the transfer from day to night involved Apep, the dragon of darkness chasing Ra, the sun god. In Norway, dragons remained underground, and in North Africa a Roman solder named George rescued a city from a dangerous beast. According to other legends George killed other dragons, eventually becoming the patron saint of England (even though he was not British).

It is not all about evil dragons however, as much as the Europeans feared dragons, the Asian often loved them. Pringle recounts how Eastern dragons did not breathe fire like their western counterparts and were regarded as wise counselors. The Chinese created rich histories for dragons and incorporated them into their calendar—2012 is the next "Year of the Dragon." Children born in that year are believed destined to "good health and great wealth".

The strength of Imagine a Dragon is the variety of the countries included which exposes readers to the vast amount of dragon lore available. Likely doubts will remain that all of these stories could have developed independently—scholars still do not agree on how so many cultures could have come to similar conclusions about creatures that never existed. Whether wise or cruel, dragons still looked remarkably similar as illustrator Eujin Kim Neilan shows in her tapestry-like illustrations accompanying Pringle's text. As an introduction to a widely regarded and insanely popular myth, Imagine a Dragon is a nice, and very attractive, place to start. Older elementary school kids in particular will find this one to be a solid resource.

Finally, for the granddaddy of all mythology titles, there is no reason to look one step further than Philip Wilkinson's gorgeous, thorough and enormously satisfying Myths and Legends: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings. This book has it all, plain and simple. Wilkinson starts with the most well known myths, those of the Greeks and Romans, and then moves around the world to the Norse gods, Celtics, King Arthur, China, India, Arabia, Japan, Egypt, South Africa and a host of Native American, Arctic and Polynesian deities. With illustrations of statues, carvings, shields and a multitude of other historical objects plus reproductions of major artworks, Myths and Legends is beautiful to look at but the accompanying text is what really compels the reader to continue. Wilkinson exposes all the connections in regional myths; all the similarities found in stories about lost babies, the underworld, fertility deities, etc. It becomes abundantly clear as the book progresses that the old stories that define so much of our individual cultures are actually all part of the same global story. Myths and Legends manages to make the world smaller while still keeping each civilization unique. It proves we all believe in something and that all too often, we actually believe in the same thing.

Myths and Legends is a coffee table book for adults, a reference for students and a valuable asset to dreamy wanderers who wonder if there is something more than a certain author's adolescent version of vampires to believe in. It is real vibrant history in all of its relevant glory and not to be missed.


The Beautiful Stories of Life: Six Greek Myths, Retold
By Cynthia Ryland
Illustrated by Carson Ellis
Harcourt 2009
ISBN 0-15-206184-5
71 pages

There Was an Old Man Who Painted the Sky
By Teri Sloat
Illustrated by Stefano Vitale
Henry Holt 2009
ISBN 0-8050-6751-5

Lord of the Sky
By Linda Zeman-Spaleny
Illustrated by Ludmila Zeman
Tundra Books 2009

Imagine a Dragon
By Laurence Pringle
Illustrated by Eujin Kim Neilan
Boyds Mill Press 2008
ISBN 1-56397-328-4

Myths and Legends
By Philip Wilkinson
DK 2009
SBN 0756643095
350 pages


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