Tales from the Odyssey series by Mary Pope Osborne

I was vaguely familiar with Mary Pope Osborne‘s Tales from the Odyssey series but hand’t read any of it until I stumbled upon book two at a library sale.  My daughter had been studying mythology at school and is an avid reader so I thought this might be a good series for her.  So decided to read the whole series. (I read version that is broken into six books but the version in two volumes is more readily available.)

Here is a good description from an education site:

Greek classics, with all their complexities, are understandably a little difficult for younger children to understand, but hey, with sea monsters, one-eyed giants, beautiful royalty, sailors on a dangerous sea, angry gods and goddesses, powerful enchantresses that can turn people into animals, and other strange creatures, there’s not much more than an adventure-craving reader could ask for in a book. Mary Pope Osbourne has retold The Odyssey for middle-grade readers, breaking it up into volumes of 8 or 9 chapters each. Large, readable print, and a “classic” look add to the appeal while the books also include additional information about Homer and The Odyssey, a map of the voyage, and a list of gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece. Also, a pronunciation guide to the names is appended, making the difficult job of stumbling through those long Greek names a little easier for youngsters.

I am not an expert on the Odyssey, or Greek mythology, by any means but I thought the series was a well done children’s version of this epic tale.  More thoughts below.

Osborne packs as much of the emotion and action into the stories as she can while keeping it simple and at an appropriate reading level. Obviously, you lose some of the depth and literary power when you simplify in this manner. But it is a great way to introduce the characters and the story arc.  You can glean a basic understanding of the Greek gods and goddesses and the basic plot of the Odyssey.

One things that struck me as I was reading was the smallness of the world at  the time.  Technology has “flattened” our world and make information ubiquitous. News flies around the world at the speed of light.  In this story, people must find out news by word of mouth as best they can. There is a great mystery as to what has really happened and who you can trust to provide accurate news from afar.  Odysseus‘s family is cut off from any real knowledge of what has happended and is forced to try and make sense of the scraps of legend and gossip that find their way to Ithaca.

I was also struck by how long Odysseus is kept from his family. Twenty years away from you wife and son!  No communication for twenty years. I am not sure why, but that struck me as an incredibly long time to be separated; and to hold on to your belief that your husband or father was still alive. The fact that story of his journey home is delayed and delayed by tragedy after tragedy really accentuates the tension and the weariness of Odysseus.

Ulysses at the court of Alcinous
Image via Wikipedia

The other thing that really stands out is the role of hospitality in Greek culture and myth. Time after time Zeus is called upon and his protection of the stranger is invoked. Hospitality for strangers is a necessary part of a culture where death by the elements is a real threat and where there are not hotels readily available for travelers.  You welcome in the weary traveler because you know you just as easily be in the same situation.  Of course, you could also be showing hospitality to a disguised god or goddess!

But as noted above, this is also an important part of both entertainment and news gathering.  You invite a traveling stranger in to tell you about the wider world they have seen and to perhaps bring news of events.  The stories and myths of the oral tradition were of course part of the court entertainment but so were the tales and experiences of travelers and strangers.

As noted above, the volumes include a handy map of Odysseus’s Journey and a glossary of the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece (with pronunciations). Reading this children’s version made me want to go back and re-read the full story. And perhaps I will.

So if you have young readers who are looking for action and adventure, and a helpful introduction to this classic story, I recommend this well done series.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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