November 17, 2017

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Heroes and Monsters: Tales from Around the Globe | Focus On World Myths

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Illustration by liquidlibrary/Thinkstock Images.

Illustration by liquidlibrary/Thinkstock Images.

The perennial appetite of children for mythical and legendary heroes is well known to librarians, from five-year-olds asking week after week for books about superheroes to upper elementary students keeping the Rick Riordan books circulating endlessly. For children on the cusp of adolescence, concerns about who they are and whether or not they will be successful begin to become significant. Stories of heroes from myths, legends, and folktales are the perfect vehicles for exploring these issues in a supportive and encouraging way. Both the traditional tales and more novelistic interpretations meet the needs of these readers. Right at the center of the myth is the hero’s quest: the journey that must be undergone in order to meet the challenge or danger. Most often, the success of the hero benefits society at large. Not all heroes are courageous and strong in the traditional sense. Some are tricksters like Odysseus, others are afraid or weak in some way, and some show inner rather than outer courage and fortitude. This tends to be particularly true of stories of female heroes, although Jane Yolen’s Not One Damsel in Distress is evidence to the contrary. This booklist includes world myths, legends, and folktales with the heroic quest at the center. It focuses largely on stories outside of the Greek and Roman canons. Retellings of the traditional stories are followed by modern interpretations. The weaving of myth and legend into novels can be as direct as the Norse myths in Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants or as elusive as the legend of Beowulf in N.D. Wilson’s Boys of Blur. Regardless, the extraordinary power of these ancient traditional stories reaches through to young readers, reassuring them that people have been facing challenges and coming through as heroes for millennia and that they can, too.

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Traditional Tales

CLAYTON , Sally Pomme. Rama and Sita: Path of Flames. illus. by Sophie Herxheimer. Frances Lincoln. 2010. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781845076726.
Gr 3-6 –Multiple heroes drive the Hindu Ramayana myth: Rama, the traditionally romantic hero; Hanuman, the monkey-god and trickster; Sita, the steadfast hero undeterred by mortal threats; and Lakshman, Rama’s loyal brother. Smooth and engaging, this retelling works as a read-alone, read-aloud, or as a storytelling source. Brightly colored collage-and-ink cutouts enliven the pages.

CROSS, Gillian. The Odyssey. illus. by Neil Packer. Candlewick. 2012. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780763647919.
Gr 5 Up –This lavishly illustrated retelling of the story of Odysseus is accessible and exciting. Cross’s lively and contemporary storytelling style gives a sense of immediacy to the events, as Odysseus and his men face one danger after another in their struggle to return home after the Trojan War. Stylized paintings with a modern feel complete the package.

LEE , Tony. Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood. illus. by Sam Hart & Artur Fujita. Candlewick. 2009. Tr $21.99. ISBN 9780763643997; pap. $12.99. ISBN 9780763644000.

Gr 6-10–The story of Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw of Crusader England who fought the oppression of the Norman rulers, includes romance, adventure, some gruesome violence, and some snappy, modern dialogue. Dark, strongly drawn illustrations heighten a sense of threatening danger in this powerful graphic retelling.
LUPTON , Hugh & Daniel Morden. The Adventures of Achilles. illus. by Carole Henaff. Barefoot. 2012. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781846868009.

Gr 6-10–Achilles, a tragic and flawed hero, battles not only the Trojans but also the intensity of his emotions in this accessible introduction to The Iliad. The complicated events are concisely but clearly told without sacrificing details or the moral ambiguity of the brutality. The muted blues and reds in the illustrations evoke ancient Greek art.

McCAUGHREAN , Geraldine. Gilgamesh the Hero. illus. by David Parkins. Eerdmans. 2003. Tr $20. ISBN 9780802852625.
Gr 5-9–The oldest hero of them all, Gilgamesh of Sumer, fights his way through life, in the way that heroes are meant to do. But when the death of his friend Enkidu compels Gilgamesh to seek immortality, he finds an unexpected answer to his painful dilemma. Striking graphics and lively narrative bring the ancient tale alive for today’s readers.

MELÉNDEZ , A. Gabriel, Casimiro Paiz & Martina Paiz. The Legend of Ponciano Gutiérrez and the Mountain Thieves. illus. by Amy Córdova. University of New Mexico. 2013. pap. $18.95. ISBN 9780826352392; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780826352408.
Gr 3-5–Transcribed and translated here for the first time, this New Mexican legend tells of a farmer who takes on a band of bank robbers and succeeds by dint of courage and intelligence at a task that eluded law enforcement authorities. Bright, large-scale paintings in this bilingual picture book capture the heartwarming appeal of the hero.

MONTEJO , Victor. Popol Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya. tr. by David Unger. illus. by Luis Garay. Groundwood. 2009. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9780888999214.
Gr 4-7–The core of this retelling of the Mayan creation myth is the story of Junahpu and Xbalanke, hero twins who battle the Lords of the Underworld to avenge the deaths of their father and uncle. This striking archetypal hero tale includes gore as well as deep commitment to family. Dramatic color paintings help readers envision the details of a challenging story.

MORPURGO , Michael. Beowulf. illus. by Michael Foreman. Candlewick. 2006. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780763632069; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780763672973.
Gr 6 Up–A powerful and action-packed prose retelling of the Old English poem in which a Scandinavian hero kills the monster Grendel, the beast’s mother, and, finally, the dragon sea monster. The language echoes some of the alliterative verse of the original, and the colorful illustrations ensure that the book remains magical rather than nightmarish.

MORPURGO , Michael. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. illus. by Michael Foreman. Candlewick. 2004. pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780763673215.
Gr 4-8–When the gigantic Green Knight arrives in King Arthur’s court, Gawain takes on the challenge to behead him, and then, a year later, accepts the same fate. Gawain learns that the quest is not about strength but honor. Morpurgo’s retelling in modern prose is compelling and accessible, while Foreman’s luminous illustrations add to the fantastical feel of the tale.

MORRIS , Gerald. The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated. illus. by Aaron Renier. (The Knights’ Tales). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9780547680859; pap. $4.99. ISBN 9780544104884; ebk. $4.99. ISBN 9780547680880.
Gr 2-5–One of a series of delightfully irreverent retellings of the stories of King Arthur’s knights, this tale introduces the lesser-known Sir Balin, who receives a prophecy that he will create calamity around him and kill the knight he loves most. Balin is a thoroughly likable character, a comedian of errors. Renier’s illustrations provide gentle humor.

NAPOLI , Donna Jo, retel. Treasury of Egyptian Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Monsters and Mortals. illus. by Christina Balit. National Geographic. 2013. lib. ed. $33.90. ISBN 9781426313813; Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781426313806.
Gr 4-7–Napoli retells the Heliopolitan story of the creation of the world by Ra and the children of the sky goddess Nut, focusing particularly on the story of Isis and Osiris and the conflict with their brother Set. Novelistic elements lend a smoothness and psychological believability to the narrative. Powerful illustrations in an Art Deco style complete the package. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

QITSUALIK , Rachel A. The Shadows That Rush Past: A Collection of Frightening Inuit Folktales. illus. by Emily Fiegenschuh & Larry MacDougall. Inhabit Media. 2011. Tr $13.95. ISBN 9781926569468.
Gr 3-5–All but one of the four stories in this book are hero tales, stories of hunters fighting monsters. All are victorious, but one of them, Nakasungnak, who defeats the giant polar bear, allows his ego to bring about his ultimate defeat by thousands of insects. Atmospheric and haunting retellings and illustrations result in a spooky reading experience.

RUMFORD , James. Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold. illus. by the author. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2007. Tr $17. ISBN 9780618756377.
Gr 3 Up–Rumford retains the muscular energy and directness of the original Anglo-Saxon poem in this picture book retelling of Beowulf’s fight against the monster Grendel and his vengeful mother. This simple and appealing version, accompanied by powerful illustrations, makes the story accessible to somewhat younger readers.

YOLEN , Jane. Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls. illus. by Susan Guevara. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2000. Tr $21. ISBN 9780152020477.
Gr 4-7–Thirteen traditional stories from around the world feature “regular sword-wielding, spear-throwing, villain-stomping, rescuing-type heroes who also happen to be female.” The warrior Nana Miriam from Niger; Tokoyo, the Japanese Samurai maiden; and Li Chi, the killer of a giant serpent from China are a few of the brave and bold women presented in smooth retellings and evocative black-and-white illustrations.

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Contemporary Imaginings

ARMSTRONG , K.L. & M.A. Marr. Loki’s Wolves. (The Blackwell Pages). Little, Brown. 2013. Tr $17. ISBN 9780316204965; pap. $8. ISBN 9780316204972; ebk. $4.99. ISBN 9780316231107.
Gr 4-6–With references to Norse mythology, this fast-moving fantasy introduces Matt Thorsen, a 13-year-old from a small town in South Dakota, who is chosen as Thor’s representative in an upcoming battle between gods and monsters. Matt tries to convince his classmates Fen and Laurie, both descendants of the trickster Loki, to join with him to save the world. Audio version available from AudioGo.

BOORAEM , Ellen. Texting the Underworld. Dial. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780803737044; ebk. $13.99. ISBN 9781101593356.
Gr 5-7–Drawing on Celtic mythology, with guest appearances by the technology-loving Babylonian god of the dead, Greek ferryman Charon, and others, this engagingly funny story tells of Irish-American middle-schooler and supposed wimp Conor O’Neill, who travels to the Underworld to stop the prophesied death of a family member.

BRUCHAC , Joseph. Wabi: A Hero’s Tale. Dial. 2007. pap. 7.99. ISBN 9780142409473; ebk. 7.99. ISBN 9781440684418.
Gr 5 Up–Bruchac draws on elements of Abenaki tales in this thrilling story of an owl shape-changer who becomes a human and falls in love with an Abenaki woman. Banished from the village because of certain owl features, he embarks on a quest to find his true self and battles destructive monsters.

CHADDA , Sarwat . The Savage Fortress. Scholastic. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545385169; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780545385176; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9780545469968.
Gr 6-8–When Ash Mistry goes to India on a family vacation, he finds an ancient arrowhead from the goddess Kali and soon becomes involved in a terrifying conflict between the evil King Ravana and his shapeshifting rakshasas and the forces of good. An exciting and stirring adventure novel that draws on the story of the Ramayana. Audio version available from Random House Audio.

CODY , Matthew. Will in Scarlet. Knopf. 2013. lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9780375968952; Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780375868955; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9780375899805.
Gr 4-7–With rich characterization, Cody offers a different interpretation of the Robin Hood legend: Robin starts out as a drunkard, Much is a girl in boys’ clothing, and Will is the son of Lord Shackley. After being cruelly dispossessed, Will escapes to Sherwood Forest, conceals his identity, and convinces Robin’s band to attack Shackley Castle to get revenge. Audio version available from Random House Audio.

GAIMAN , Neil. Odd and the Frost Giants. illus. by Brett Helquist. HarperCollins. 2009. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9780061671739; pap. $4.99. ISBN 9780061964879.
Gr 3-6–Gaiman draws on Norse mythology in this quietly humorous and satisfying novella about a Viking boy who is victimized by his stepfather. In archetypal heroic fashion, Odd meets and befriends various animal helpers (really the gods Odin, Thor, and Loki) and is recruited to defeat the frost giants. Helquist’s illustrations are dramatic and evocative. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

GOELMAN , Ari. The Path of Names. Scholastic. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545474306; ebk. $16.99. ISBN 9780545540148.
Gr 5-7–When math and sleight-of-hand expert Dahlia arrives as an unwilling participant in a Jewish summer camp, she sees two girls walk right through her cabin wall. She is drawn into an old and mortally dangerous mystery involving ghosts, possession, the mystical Kabbalah, and a mythical monster, the Golem. A challenging, suspenseful read with a thrilling conclusion.

HEALY , Christopher. The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. illus. by Todd Harris. HarperCollins/Walden Pond. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062117434; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780062117458; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9780062117441.
Gr 4-6–This takeoff on the heroic Prince Charmings of European fairy tales reveals the back stories of Liam, Frederic, Duncan, and Gustav and their gutsy princesses. When Ella feels imprisoned by married life and goes off to find Rapunzel, the tales collide with humorous and suspenseful results. Lighthearted black-and-white drawings add to the fun.

LIN , Grace. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Little, Brown. 2009. Tr $17. ISBN 9780316114271; pap. $9. ISBN 9780316038638; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9780316052603.
Gr 3-5–Desperate to provide comfort for her extremely poor family, Minli embarks on a quest to find the Old Man of the Moon, who controls everyone’s destiny. Minli’s quiet confidence and willingness to trust herself and the unusual helpers she meets lead her to her goal. Lin expertly weaves in Chinese folklore that enriches the narrative and moves it forward. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

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OKORAFOR , Nnedi. Akata Witch. Viking. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780670011964; ebk. $13.99. ISBN 9781101513798.
Gr 5 Up–An albino Nigerian girl raised in America returns to Nigeria and discovers that she is a Leopard person, or witch. As Sunny and her friends try to defeat a serial killer, Okorafor inventively blends a fantasy thriller with the harsh realities of the discrimination Sunny faces as an albino and great soccer player. Based on Igbo tradition.

PREUS , Margi. West of the Moon. Abrams/Amulet. 2014. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781419708961; ebk. $16.95. ISBN 9781613125069.
Gr 5-8–In this 19th-century tale of slavery in Northern Europe, Astri escapes a brutish goat farmer and leaves for America with her younger sister. Woven throughout are elements of the tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Like a gem catching the sunlight, this historical novel illuminates the magic of Norwegian folklore and the real-world heroism of a determined girl.

UEHASHI , Nahoko. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. tr. from Japanese by Cathy Hirano. illus. by Yuko Shimizu. Scholastic. 2009. pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780545005432; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9780545311809.
Gr 6 Up–Uehashi draws on aspects of Japanese myth in this thrilling adventure fantasy about a strong, spear-wielding heroine, Balsa, who becomes the secret bodyguard to Prince Chagum. Chagum is believed to have been possessed by an evil spirit and has been ordered assassinated. Fully formed characters inform the action-packed plot.

URSU , Anne. Breadcrumbs. illus. by Erin McGuire. HarperCollins/Walden Pond. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062015051; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780062015068; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9780062049247.
Gr 4-6– When Hazel’s only friend, Jack, stops speaking to her and then disappears into the forest, she goes to look for him. What she finds stretches her courage and determination beyond anything she could have imagined. Ursu blends Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” and elements of other fairy tales to create a psychologically realistic fantasy with a powerful resolution. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

WILSON , N.D. Boys of Blur. Random. 2014. lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9780449816745; Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780449816738; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780449816752.
Gr 4-7–Take envy, anger, and small-town racism. Mix them with football, a blended interracial family, the Everglade swamps, Beowulf, and life-energy composed of courage, love, and honesty. The story of Charlie Reynolds bursts from the page with power and verve, as he and his cousin, Cotton, take on the monsters that are tearing the town of Taper apart.

YEP , Laurence . City of Fire. Tom Doherty. 2009. pap. $5.99. ISBN 9780765358790; ebk. $5.99. ISBN 9781429946117.
Gr 5-8–An unlikely group of magical and human characters band together to fight evil in this exciting, detail-filled fantasy set in 1941 San Francisco. The heroes fly by magic carpet to Hawaii, where they’re aided by Pele, the volcano goddess. Although multiple perspectives are presented, 12-year-old Scirye and her journey provide the emotional center of this trilogy opener.

ZAHLER , Diane. Princess of the Wild Swans. illus. by Yvonne Gilbert. HarperCollins. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062004925; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780062004956; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9780062102027.
Gr 4-6–Drawing on Andersen’s “Wild Swans” and the Brothers Grimm’s “Six Swans,” the story of Princess Meriel offers a view of inner heroism and endurance. To free her brothers from their evil stepmother’s curse, Meriel must remain mute as she knits garments out of nettles, and the consequences of her success or failure will affect their whole town.

Sue Giffard is a librarian at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City.

Resources for Teachers

Encyclopedia Mythica. Encyclopedia Mythica. (Accessed 8/27/14).
The encyclopedia is edited by Micha F. Lindemans, and the staff includes a number of subject specialists. Entries offer short descriptions of gods and mythological characters. A section on heroes includes information on approximately 50 characters, mostly male and largely focused on Western mythology.

Myth Encyclopedia: Myths and Legends of the World. Advameg, Inc. (Accessed 8/27/14).
Produced by a company that runs numerous reference sites, this one contains information about various gods, types of myths, and mythological systems from different cultures. Unfortunately, no sources are given, and some errors were found. But much of the information is accurate, and there is sufficient coverage to ensure the site’s usefulness.

MythologyTeacher.com. Zachary Hamby. (Accessed 8/27/14).
An author, illustrator, and teacher, Hamby created this site as a resource for teaching mythology creatively. He includes a page on hero myths, links to other websites and videos, resources on connecting mythology to popular culture, and a section on how to create a “Choose Your Own Adventure”–type story.

Websites on Mythology in World Cultures. Cumberland County AVA Center. (Accessed 8/27/14).
Compiled by a media center for public and private schools in Cumberland County, New Jersey, this resource includes a long list of links (most of which are still active), a number of curriculum units with lesson plans and activities, and a few webquests.

This article was published in School Library Journal's October 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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