For many families, August is a month of  journies. Travel is transformative because  it breaks your habits, makes you an observer, and changes your perception of home.  The ultimate story about how a journey can transform a person is Homer’s The Odyssey, but I assumed I wouldn’t have a chance to share this legend with my kids until they became teenagers.

So I was surprised and pleased when I stumbled upon Mary Pope Osbourne‘s Tales From the Odyssey in the Montclair Public Library. Ms. Osbourne is the author of the middle-grade historical fiction series The Magic Treehouse, which my daughter laps up. Osbourne, who writes for the 7-10 crowd, is masterful at keeping language simple while making plot dense and informative, so I thought she’d be just the person to write a middle grade version of The Odyssey, which my daughter and I pledged to read bit by bit on our journies in a dented S.U.V this summer.  We’ve read the series aloud in the car, in bed, lakeside and poolside.

Ms. Osbourne’s Tales from the Odyssey, bound up neatly in a two volume set, is not a “fractured” or reinvented version of Greek myth in the style of Rick Riordian’s wonderful Percy Jackson & The Olympians series.  Her plot studiously follows the arc of Homer’s epic as translated by masters like Robert Fagles and Allen Mandelbaum. Even as she strips down the language for children,  she is careful to match Homer’s tone and characterization. For example,  Riordian’s Calypso is a lonely, appealing, relateable teenager who got a raw deal from the Gods, while Osbourne’s Calypso is a glittering, dangerous, love-sick captor of heroes in the tradition of Homer. This is a middle-grade retelling for purists who want children to have a foundation in the original storyline before they move on to more inventive retellings of Greek myth.

In terms of the age appropriateness, I might have gotten a little ahead of myself by presenting my not-yet 6-year-old with The Odyssey, in any form.  My daughter reads above grade level but she is emotionally 6, and I balked when the Cyclops chomped down a handful of Greek soldiers like french fries; when the immoral cattle of Helios lowed as they were being grilled and eaten by Odysseus’ men; and on and on. I kept telling my daughter that we should put the book down until she grew older, and she would beg for “just one more chapter.” My daughter seemed enthralled by being a little scared by this book, but I don’t think it’s the right choice for every kid, whether they are 6 , 8  or 10. There is lots of violence in this series, yet the sexuality is muted. It is not clear that Odysseus has anything more than a friendship with the various island enchantresses who shelter him.  The reunion between Penelope and Odysseus is deftly handled and true to the original.

Mary Pope Osborne’s Tales From the Odyssey is a book that should be read critically and discussed.  Some of the values in the story should be challenged.  With its eternal themes of revenge, seduction, longing, death, loyalty, and bravery, it’s something I’d want to discuss with my kids at any age.

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