Tuesday 1 September 2015

Into the Labyrinth

I must admit that it came as rather a surprise quite how captivated my three year old has become with the colourful literary world of Greek myths. It began with the chance find of a copy of Usborne's brilliant young reading series' The Minotaur as she browsed the library shelves. Her nursery teachers reported that she had commandeered the Montessori red maze to set up her own Cretan structure, and she drew maze after maze at any opportunity for weeks. When we could renew this book no longer, and following a trip for her jabs when she was promised a treat for being brave, aptly she chose her own copy of this aged tale of courage.

We also discovered rather quickly that there was a host of other well written, captivatingly illustrated, early reader editions of tales from Greek mythology. These have been read and read again in recent months and few other picture books have, at the prospect of being returned to the library, led to such consternation. We've started to spot favourite characters everywhere - perching above fountains, decorating the facades of buildings and nestled between other ornaments in stately homes. I've been reminded what an essential symbolic vocabulary these ancient tales provide, granting access to much of our taken-for-granted but innate understanding of the world. For we are all ultimately the cultural descendents of the ancient Greeks, and no child should be without an understanding of these fascinating tales. With Culturebaby's latest obsession - Narnia - again it is so clear that C.S. Lewis and many of his ingenious literary friends rooted their tales in both biblical and mythical worlds. Her toy Narnian centaur often travels with us...

With perfect timing, we spotted the British Museum's Defining Beauty exhibition was open, and we headed over on a day when extra Greek-themed activities had been put on for pre-schoolers. I wasn't sure whether this sort of (rather quiet and academic) exhibition would work for her, but rather than focus on the theme we chose to go on a hunt for some of our favourite characters and this worked extremely well; keeping her interested and focused throughout. We were delighted to find the holy grails of both Gorgon and Minotaur, met Athena and Zeus (who have numerous cameo appearances in our stories), and spotted centaurs and heroes Theseus and Perseus. We even sat and quietly read one of her favourite stories about the winged horse Pegasus in front of a particularly interesting statue of Athena, the goddess who helped Bellerophon to catch him and go on to defeat the ferocious Chimera. Following the exhibition we joined activities to create a Grecian figure (Culturebaby inevitably made a minotaur instead), and make our own black and red pottery designs. Whilst this exhibition closed last weekend, this sort of character hunt can be done in any good Greek gallery. The Ashmolean and British Museum permanent collections are particularly good, and of course Greek-revival designs are everywhere!

On a recent trip to Hampshire, for instance, we discovered an unexpected little treasure trove of Greek revival imagery at The National Trust's Hinton Ampner. We had a great time meandering through the rooms counting sphinxes, centaurs and greek Gods. Next I think we will try this lovely little activity from ArtHistoryMom  - an I-spy Greek-influenced architecture hunt.

The most loved of Culture-baby's books on the theme to date have been, first from Usborne, The Minotaur by Punter and Cavallini and Perseus and the Gorgon by Sims and Bursi (these are the two absolute favourites), The Story of Pegasus by Susanna Davidson and Simona Bursi, The Wooden Horse by Punter and Pincelli, The Amazing Adventures of Ulysses by Webb and Amery, Jason and the Golden Fleece by Zeff and Cartwright, Stories of Magical Animals by Watson and Price and a very simple edition of King Midas and the Gold by Frith and Sanfillipo. She's also starting to really enjoy the Greek Beasts and Heroes series by Lucy Coats and Anthony Lewis which each follow Atticus the Storyteller who shares an assortment of short tales as he travels across Greece. Likewise Hopscotch Myths' Icarus The Boy Who Flew by Wade and Lopez, Orchard Books First Greek Myths The Secret of Pandora's Box by Pirotta and Lewis, and finally Julia Green's Sephy's Story - a modern telling of Pandora's tale and why (because of naughty Pluto) we have six months of summer and six months of winter - were all great picture books.

I'd also very much recommend Usborne's brilliant Sticker Dressing Series - Greek Myths, which has served as a great joint activity and opportunity for conversation about myth and history. On the theme of the Labyrinth, she's also really enjoyed a quirky wordless book Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman where a boy gets lost in a museum and finds himself in a series of mazes, uncovering secrets and himself becoming part of the, perhaps often ignored, exhibits.

We'd love to hear about your favourite Greek myth editions for little people too, activities to bring them alive and your discoveries of favorite mythical characters lurking in nooks and crannies across the world...

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