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On a rare, quiet Sunday, I began to plot a quest to Costco, Marshalls and the Disney Store to seek out Halloween costumes. What branded princess or pirate would set me adrift in malls this year, longing for my lost home like Odysseus? I sighed and asked my 5.5 year old daughter what she wanted to be. She replied, “Mommy, I want to make up my own thing this year.” I asked my 3 year-old son the same question, expecting to hear “Jake!” from his beloved Jake and the Neverland Pirates. He looked me in the eye and answered, “I wanna be a Passion-Fruit Puppy” (a character of his own creation that has inspired him to crawl around on all fours, barking, for the past week).

As usual, my kids are way ahead of me. Halloween, a holiday that has its roots in the European Christian custom of praying for the recently departed on All Souls Day, has grown ubiquitous in the U.S. because it is a celebration of the core American values of inventiveness and personal expression. What is Halloween if not an opportunity for our entire culture to engage in imaginative play? Letting my kids come up with their own superheroes is a way for them to symbolically express what they value and whom they want to become.

So based on my puerile fascination with The League of Justice and The X-Men, I asked my kids the following questions to help them develop their own superheroes:

  • What special powers does your superhero have?
  • How did he get his powers?
  • What is heroic? What makes someone a hero?
  • Whom does your superhero stand up for? What does she protect?
  • Who are his friends and family?
  • What is his secret identity? How does he or she disguise himself to blend in with ordinary mortals?
  • Does your superhero have a weakness?

At bedtime, our children regaled me with stories of “The Fairy of the Animals” and her sidekick, “Passion Fruit Puppy,” for a solid hour.  This play premise has evolved into an ongoing family mythology that has taken on a life of its own.

I am not “craftsy,” yet these costumes were a breeze to cobble together. I ordered a generic puppy suit and gold fairy outfit from Ricky’s. We are adding personal embellishments like a cardboard collar with fruit on it for the puppy. I am planning to duck tape stuffed animals to my daughter to avoid anything that resembles sewing.

To folks handing out candy, my kids will look like a plain-old fairy and puppy, but in their minds, and mine, they will be extraordinary.

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My hometown is aflutter with butterflies. Slow your pace in front of the purple blooms of a butterfly bush and you will notice these delicate survivors, intent on the sweetness of living. Many small brown & orange butterflies alight on our bush, but there are only two, large tiger-striped swallowtails left. Last week there were many. One of the swallowtails has a long tear in his mustard wing; he sips frenetically, bloom hopping.

Our Butterfly Bush

If they are lucky, adult butterflies live 20 to 40 days after emerging from their cocoons, mating and taking sustenance from late summer flowers. Their prime seems so short and fragile. Perhaps that is why they are often symbols of impermanence. Today I told my children this Native American story, based on an episode of the wonderful animated show Raven Tales, which airs on the Smithsonian Channel, and a version of the story on the website of the United Cherokee Nations. (Children’s television does not get deeper than Raven Tales. Check it out!).

Here’s my retelling:

There was once a time when children did not grow up or grow old. The Great Spirit knew this way was not sustainable, but he wondered whether the children were ready to change and grow up. He sat on a boulder and watched the children playing, their lively brown eyes flashing, their smooth skin rosy and flushed, and he felt worried that they would not be able to handle the responsibilities of adulthood, and sad that someday they would have to feel the aches and pains of age, that their beauty would wither and fade like a bright autumn leaf. He wanted to make sure they were strong enough to understand.  So he made them a present.

The Great Spirit took all of the colors of nature, the browns of the soil, the reds and oranges of sunsets, the greens of moss and leaf, the whites of the children’s smiles, the yellows of the sun, and blended them together in a huge sack. As an afterthought, he threw birdsong into the mix. Then he shook the sack and pulled out sticky, oval objects that he gave to each child. He told the children to protect the objects until summer’s end. He asked Raven to help the children care for the gifts. The children were perplexed–the sticky little things were not very interesting. Sometimes they forgot about them and left them beside streams and under trees. But Raven always brought them back to the children, squawking and scolding and muttering under his breath.  

When the Great Spirit returned, he thanked Raven and gathered all of the ovals into his hands. He blew on them and from his hands flew hundreds of butterflies, in every color of the rainbow. The children stood amazed and awed. All of the people danced in appreciation of this beautiful new creation. But Raven and the other winged ones sat on the Great Spirit’s shoulders and complained. They felt it was not fair that he gave away the gift that made birds special, birdsong. So the Great Spirit took song away from the butterflies, leaving them silent. 

The Great Spirit asked the children if they were ready to change, and they said yes. He told them to remember that growing up is a gift and a responsibility, and that anytime they felt frightened, they should remember the butterflies, how they filled the sky with their colors for a short time, drinking sweetness and bringing new life to the world. The butterflies would always speak, without sound, of happy times. And then the children began to grow up.

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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.

I cannot wait for the pageantry and ritual of the Olympic opening ceremony tonight, thought there are a whole lot of traditions from ancient Greece I’m glad we have shed. The ancient Olympics, which began in 776 B.C., were open only to free men who spoke Greek. Not only were women barred from competing, married women were forbidden to attend under pain of death. (See The Perseus Digital Library). I assume maidens were permitted to attend so that they could be seen, appreciated and vetted for marriage by the aristocrats who funded the athletes.

By 560 B.C., there was a separate set of athletic games for women called the Heraia, dedicated to the goddess of marriage, Hera, and probably positioned as a prenuptial initiation rite.

Understanding the cultural history of the Olympics reminds me how important it is to ACT on the sexism  of Greek mythology when sharing these ancient stories with modern children.  On story in particular that had always fascinated and troubled me is the tale of great female athlete Atalanta, which goes something like this:

The cruel king who fathered Atalanta abandoned her in the woods because she was not the son he had hoped for. She was nursed and raised by a she-bear, the goddess Artemis in disguise. After she was caught in a snare by a huntsman who taught her to speak, she won fame all over Greece for her fleetness of foot.  She humiliated an army of ineffectual Greek warriors by slaying the monstrous Caledonian boar with one deftly placed arrow. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an oracle warns her “you must shun any marriage; if this advice will not be taken; though you stay alive, you will have lost yourself.” (Allen Mandelbaum’s translation)

Atalanta’s worthless father, the king, reclaims her as she wins more fame for her hunting, grace and fleetness of foot. She makes him promise that any suitor who wishes to marry must beat her in a footrace, or be put to death. She is gorgeous, almost supernatural, as she runs, as so many great athletes are.  Many suitors are beaten and put to the sword. Finally a young prince named Melanion (or Hippomenes in the Roman version) sacrifices to Aphrodite, who gives him three golden apples. As he races Atalanta for her hand, he throws down the apples on the path. Each time, she strays a little further from her course to retrieve the irresistible, gleaming apple. Just as she picks up the third fruit, he crosses the finish line and “wins her” as his wife. In their passion, the married couple forgets to sacrifice to Aphrodite. Miffed, she turns them into a pair of fierce, growling lions.

It has always bothered me that Melanion must conquer Atalanta and make her stray from the path of greatness in order to win her. This story begs for retelling, and this week I’ll give my kids a chance to do that. The perspective I’d like to change in the story is that of Melanion.  I’ll report back in part 2 of this blog post.

No toy has held sway over my daughter’s imagination like her pastel My Little Ponies. At 5 1/2, in transition from little kid to big kid, she’s reading on her own and looking to take her pony obsession up a level. So I knew it was a done deal when, at a book sale, she picked up the second book in the Bella Sara Series,Valkrist’s Flight,  with a cover adorned with a shimmering, winged, white horse complete with a purple orchid tattoo on it’s flank. Total girl catnip.

The Bella Sarah series is intended for children aged 7-10; I knew it was something I should read with my 5.5-year-old and I was dreading it.  I expected ponies, princesses, gowns, girl rivalries, etc. I did not expect to meet the Valkyries in the course of the story. In Norse mythology, the Valkyries are handsome warrior maidens who accompany the father-god, Odin, into battle on winged horses. They are muses of war, inspiring courage and fury. When a hero falls on the battlefield, a Valkyrie sweeps his soul from his body, slings it across her saddle, and carries him to Valhalla, a hall in the gods’ home of Asgard where war heroes spend eternity eating barbecue, guzzling mead, and brawling.

Valkryies, Two Ways

I keep my beloved D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths locked and loaded for the time when my daughter is ready to read it, but she is not mature enough to handle most of the stories. . .  yet. Norse mythology is a particularly bloody, bellicose and blackly humorous body of narrative in which Balder, the God of light and beauty is murdered; Loki, the shape-shifter, changes into a mare and is impregnated by a stallion; Odin, the stern father-god, plucks out his eye and hangs himself from the tree of life to obtain wisdom; and oh yeah, the world ends. Few of these tales scream, “Read me to a little girl!”

However, the author of the Bella Sara series, Felicity Brown, has found a way to weave Norse mythology into modern coming-of-age stories about horse adoration. The first book in the series is populated with wolves descended from the great wolf monster of Norse Mythology, Fenrir. Book 2, Valkrist’s Flight, is the story of an orphan who discovers she is the descendant of a banished Valkyrie. I thought this was a really interesting premise and hoped to see the story of a modern Valkyrie develop in the tradition of Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, but it seems the Bella Sara books are a series born of playing cards. Therefore, each story is the story of a different of a different girl in love with a different horse; they are meant to be collected like pretty ponies. The mythology in this series is decorative, though the values of self reliance and compassion for animals that the books promote are admirable.

When you can’t find the book you want, create it. In ancient Norse culture, the Valkyries were used as a way to sweeten the horrors of war, as mythic propaganda. Sharing myths with kids gives a parent the chance to examine a culture’ values in relation to one’s own.  I’d like to tell my daughter a story in which a modern Valkyrie chooses to spare a life and reject and an endless cycle of war. Tonight that’s what I’ll do.

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