Besides our two “Newbery Through the Decades” challenge titles for March that Miss M and I read (21 Balloons and Strawberry Girl), a lot of our read-alouds and audiobooks lately have been related to our ancient history studies.
Since I am still getting back in the habit of chronicling our reading here on the blog, I am going to back up to February momentarily. We spent most of January and February, as well as part of March studying ancient Greece. No study of ancient Greece would be complete without a reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey, right?
After a brief try at reading Black Ships Before Troy (Rosemary Sutcliff) with Miss M, we decided to go with a bit simpler version. Black Ships Before Troy was just a bit too complicated to start out with, given a limited background in greek mythology. I picked up a copy of the Classic Starts version of the Iliad and this was just perfect for a quick read alone by Miss M (who honestly wasn’t very interested in the story!), and for a read-aloud to the boys.
I spent most of March reading the Mary Pope Osborne retelling of the Odyssey to the boys. Osborne’s Odyssey is told in six short books (combined into just 2 volumes in some editions). Miss M easily read them to herself at the pace of one book per day, but it took much longer for me to get through reading all six volumes aloud to the boys at a pace of two chapters per day! Luckily, they are exciting and the boys definitely wanted to find out if and when Odysseus ever made it home, so we persevered through the whole six volumes. I enjoyed this too, having forgotten most of the details of the story of the Odyssey.
In February and into March we also listened to a much more modern mythological story — Percy Jackson and The Olympians Book 1: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. The kindle + audiobook prices for this was pretty reasonable, and I thought it would be a fun way to get the kids more excited about mythology. I have to say, it worked pretty well. 🙂 We listened to the audio book on various car rides and occasionally in the house as well. The Percy Jackson books are built around the premise that the gods of Greek mythology are real, and that they move their presence periodically to the strongest country in western civilization. Of course that means that the home of the gods is currently New York City. Percy is a demi-god, or half-blood, who must save the world from a potential war between the gods.
The Lightning Thief is quite entertaining, and I think I enjoyed it as much as the kids. It is definitely full of magic and mythology, and the descriptions of Hades and the underworld were borderline scary to me. Interestingly, this didn’t seem to bother the kids at all — even my six year old! (It was way over the head of the 3 year old, of course). I wouldn’t necessarily suggest this series of books to kids who are easily scared or who don’t have a firm grasp of the line between fiction and reality when it comes to talking about mythological gods. Kids who can handle Harry Potter should do just fine. My kids are comfortable pretending and reading stories “about those fake Greek gods,” and it doesn’t seem to shake their genuine beliefs at all.
Miss M and I had our own audiobook in March as well. We had a long-ish drive to and from a family event by ourselves, and I wanted to have something to make the time pass quickly in the car. I decided to try and match up with our history studies a bit, and I chose The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence to download from the library. This is the first book in a series called “The Roman Mysteries.”
In The Thieves of Ostia, a group of children need to solve a puzzling mystery of who has been killing some of the neighborhood dogs. It’s an exciting “whodunnit” that pays a lot of attention to Roman customs and details of life in the first century AD. This is definitely more appropriate for older elementary ages and up — in fact, I later realized that the paper copies of this book are shelved in the teen section of our library! The book contained some rather vivid descriptions of the poor treatment of slaves, and graphic depictions of the beheading of the dogs. Drunkenness and suicide are also touched upon in the course of the story. Miss M (age 10.5), was not bothered by this…but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable listening to it with the boys (ages 8 and 6).
While interesting and full of detail, I did feel like The Thieves of Ostia fell into the trap that many historical fiction novels fall into of projecting modern views onto people from a different era. I didn’t find it very believable that the daughter of a well-off sea captain, a slave girl, a Jewish-Christian boy, and a mute beggar boy (the main characters of the story) would really have become friends and share in the solving of a mystery in Roman times. In general, it was hard for me to picture kids from Roman times “searching for clues.” There was practically even a “I would have gotten away with it if it wouldn’t have been for you meddling kids” line from the culprit when he was caught.
Overall, I don’t think we’ll be seeking out any more books from this series, though perhaps it is someting Miss M will pick up and read on her own at some point.