23 November 2009

Classical Literature

Hercules by Geraldine McCaughrean is an excellent book. It's book 1 in her 4-book Heroes Series, which also include Odysseus, Perseus, and Theseus.

Now, remember that our homeschool follows the guidelines of The Well Trained Mind, which has students cycling three times through the same material on increasingly more difficult levels. Each of the three cycles corresponds with a phase of growth that young people go through, known in Classical circles as the Grammar stage, Logic stage, and Rhetoric stage. So, keeping this in mind, know that I buy a fifth-grade book to read aloud to my first grader. Then she reads it on her own in fifth grade, and then she reads a more difficult version of it in ninth grade. This happens for each grade level. For instance, in second grade it would be a sixth-grade book and then a tougher version in tenth grade.

Ok, back to Hercules.

The first introduction we have to the book and Geraldine McCaughrean's scintillating way of retelling legend is, unusually, the very first page of the book. Even before the list of the "cast" in the story, before his family tree, before the left-side page of publishing info... before all that is a short page just begging to be read aloud. I can just see the wizened old man whose wiry arm shoots out towards me as I walk through a Greek marketplace-

"You there! Think you're strong, do you?... There's not a man born but a cockroach could endure more hardships. Not one. Not now. Listen! before the constellations of beast stars are herded away into the far distant barns of night... Listen! the sky grows weary and lets it fall- because there is no one now who could prevent it crashing onto the place beneath. Hercules is gone..."

Isn't that just the way you want your kids to hear such legend? Not as a dry lesson with a worksheet to follow, but as an amazing adventure! McCaughrean can do it! We've enjoyed her versions of at least four or five books. (look at the next post to see an Amazon listing of some.)

When I took Hercules off of our bookshelf, Claire asked me what I was going to do with it. I asked her what her favorite part was. She said she liked how the king hid in a brass box every time Hercules returned to him to report that another "impossible task" had been completed. Check out the humor evident in McCaughrean's writings- the characters of the ancient story come to life:

"Hercules looked again round the room, but there was no sign of the king. An embarrassed slave jerked his head once or twice in the direction of a huge brass chest standing beside the throne. Two slits halfway donw, and in the slits the glitter of two eyes, revealed the presence of King Eurystheus. Hercules looked to the slave for an explanation, but the boy only shrugged as if to say, "Don't ask me." Unsure of the correct protocol for addressing a king sealed up in a big brass box, Hercules sidled up to it with some embarrassment and knelt down respectfully on one knee. Like that, he was on a levle to peer through the slits. The eyes inside blinked, and a little whimper escaped the trunk..."

One more comment about the reading cycle: For all of her books, because they are written to a higher age group, when I read them to my elementary kids out loud, I do some fast editing. In Hercules, I left out that he was assigned the 12 tasks because he killed his wife, 6 kids, in-laws, and servants in a drunken rage. In her Gilgamesh the Hero, I left out that a naked woman's sweet kisses tamed the wild Enkidu. Let them learn all that when they're older.

I really liked how Hercules was a gentle giant. I know I just said he killed everyone in a drunken rage, but he knew not to drink. He was forced into it (a lesson on peer pressure?). He shows regret when his strength damages something. He doesn't like to use it to kill beautiful things like the Golden Stag of Cerynia. He has dear friends. He disapproves of mistreatment of the weak.

The book has no illustrations other than the front cover. However, many times when I was reading, my kids would suddenly jump up and run over to me, demanding to see the pictures because of the vivid descriptions. The chapters were a good length to read in one session to freshly bathed and pyjamaed kids. My younger daughter (2 then) came in and out of the room and looked at other picture books, but she was quiet because she saw that the older kids were enthralled.

Geraldine McCaughrean's talent is what makes these ancient legends come to life- and coming back to them in a few years will be a joy and not something for my kids to be intimidated by.


  1. Home is Where the Heart isNovember 23, 2009 at 11:11 AM

    Thanks for the review!! I have seen this at the library and have kept it in the back of my mind for later. It's good to know that it is such a great book!

  2. Hannah @ A Quiet SpotNovember 23, 2009 at 4:14 PM

    I hadn't heard of this book, but I'm glad to read your review. My kids really enjoy the Jim Weiss recordings of the Greek Myths, especially the tales of the Labors of Hercules. This book might be a good choice for my nine year old boy. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. It really is- and the rest of her re-tellings, as well. Glad you have a copy to borrow!

  4. We enjoy him on the Story of the World CDs as well. I'm sure a boy that age would love the descriptions and the battles!