The Biblical story of Noah has its counterpart in nearly every culture around the world and has been interpreted in a variety of forms. But only the Old Testament version has the complete scope of elements that make it such a literary classic and one which has been interpreted again and again by some of the best children’s book authors and illustrators. Peter Spier’s nearly wordless edition won the Caldecott Medal in 1978 and remains one of my favorites. It begins with a lovely lyrical poem by Jacobus Revius (1586-1658) that would make a wonderful work for bright young minds to memorize. It begins like this:
High and long,
Thick and strong
Wide and stark,
Was the ark.
Said the Lord.
Other editions that capture the wonder and magnificence of this story are Arthur Geisert’s The Ark and Lisbeth Zwerger’s Noah’s Ark. Geisert is a master in pen and ink and his detailed drawings capture the grand scope of this drama. In Zwerger’s edition she adds surrealistic elements (unicorns and centaurs make an appearance) that allow the story to transcend a concrete world of time and space. Noah’s family at times look as though they could be contemporary Jews escaping the holocaust (except for an anachronistic hat or other article of clothing) which of course lends the tale a deeper and broader impact for pondering. Zwerger’s use of space transcends the concrete material world and lends a mystery and delight to a beloved tale.
For any reader interested in an overall understanding of ancient history, Genevieve Foster’s Augustus Caesar’s World presents an engaging, entertaining, and fascinating look at the seminal events and persons of the major empires of antiquity. Written using her innovative “horizontal history” approach, Foster takes the reader into the personal lives of such notable persons as Herod, Cleopatra, Octavian, Antony, Brutus, and of course, Julius Caesar. Beyond Rome, readers will be introduced to the lives of Siddhartha, Confucius, Gamaliel, Horace, Cicero, Vergil and more. The book opens with the intrigue involved in the plot to assassinate Caesar, but extends far beyond that to the seminal figures of Ancient China, Persia, India, Israel and more. For a more extensive introduction to this wonderful book, see Kerry Walter’s review at amazon.com. For those new to a study of ancient history, or those just needing a refresher course, this is a delightful choice.
The Heroic Quest is an important literary device that allows readers to identify the consistent and recurring motifs that form epic literature. Analyzing literature using the elements of the heroic quest enables readers to see the deeper meanings inherent in classic literature. Basic elements of the heroic quest are as follows:
Since I am currently immersed in the civilization of the ancients, I will be posting the best books I’ve found for teaching this period of history to your students. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, to D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, to The Story of Jonah by Peter Spier, there exists a
wealth of gorgeous children’s books in this category. This was not always the case particularly for the youngest student, as the offerings were slim to none. It was often the case that the only beautifully illustrated and lyrically written books for young children on ancient times were Bible stories. While this is an important element of ancient study, there were few books that presented the ancient civilizations of Sumer, Greece, Egypt, Persia, China, etc. This situation has changed for the better, and now those wishing to use children’s literature to teach this important subject have much more to choose from. Here are a few of my favorites:
Gilgamesh the Hero by Geraldine McCaughrean–this abridged and edited edition of civilization’s first epic is delightfully retold by the award-winning and expert lyrical crafts-woman McCaughrean. This epic is important for the literary elements it introduces (see What is the Heroic Quest? in my other posts), and for the fact that it is mankind’s first recorded epic work. It is a clear reflection of Sumerian ideology and many elements within this story are also reflected in Biblical narratives as well. The story of Utnapishtim is another telling of the biblical flood story of Noah. Contrasting Utnapishtim’s story with Noah’s makes for a wonderful exercise in world views.
Another all-time favorite of mine for this period of history is Peter Spier’s Book of Jonah. While the story of Jonah is a seminal part of our cultural heritage, not until I read Spier’s edition did I really understand the story behind the story. What the bible doesn’t tell us is that Jonah feared going to Nineveh because Nineveh was the seat of the hated Assyrian Empire. Known for their cruelty and draconian punishments, Jonah’s fear is completely understandable. Mr. Spier’s lovely watercolors and thorough back matter make this book an essential part of an ancient history study.
For Ancient Greece the inimitable classic of Greek mythology continues to be D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. This husband-wife author/illustrator team first won acclaim when they published the Caldecott Medal winner of 1940–Abraham Lincoln. Using an old-world craft of stone lithography, the artists managed to imbue their illustrations with a lovely depth of color and beauty. While their book on the Greek myths does not reflect that craft very well, it does present their classical background and their ability to make an extensive pantheon understandable to the lay reader. They also have a homey and comfortable understanding of what is appropriate for the young reader and thus, make these tales suitable for even the very young.
Rea Berg is passionate about children's books and has been republishing classic and historical children's literature for the last 30 years through her company Beautiful Feet Books. She also designs guides for teaching elementary and secondary students history using award-winning classic and historic literature. She holds both an undergraduate degree in English from Simmons College, Boston as well as a graduate degree in children's literature.