February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Adventures with a Far-Wandering Hero | Homer’s The Odyssey

Filled with harrowing monsters and fate-dictating deities, all-too-human hubris and heartache, daring exploits and hard-won epiphanies, Homer’s Odyssey has thrilled and edified audiences for centuries. Already a component in many literature units, the epic poem serves as an ideal text for exploring Common Core State Standards with ninth and tenth grade students, and offers a multitude of opportunities for study in other grades. Ranging in reading audience from middle school to high school, the adaptations featured here effectively and artfully blend text and illustrations to convey the plot and overarching themes of the original work.

Creative, colorful, and compelling, these narrative adaptations and graphic novels enhance the storytelling with thoughtful artistic interpretations and will inspire readers to further explore and assimilate the elements of this timeless classic. Share these enticing volumes with students already familiar with the epic to make comparisons and contrasts, or use them to tempt the uninitiated to try the real thing.

Narrative Retellings
Supplement standard fare such as Rosemary Sutcliff’s gracefully written The Wanderings of Odysseus (Delacorte, 1996), handsomely illustrated by Alan Lee, with newer works. Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden’s The Adventures of Odysseus (Barefoot, 2006; Gr 5-8) offers a streamlined recounting that balances non-stop action with lyrical language. A prologue provides helpful background by briefly relating the tale of Paris, charged with choosing which of three goddesses is the most beautiful, and how his decision ignited the Trojan War.

Much of the story is told in vivid first-person narration by Odysseus, giving the tale a gripping sense of immediacy and adding depth to the character. Combining simplicity with insight, the succinct sentences and poetic chords are well-suited to a long-suffering man who has learned much: “All I have left now is my name. And a longing as sharp as pain to see the land that gave me life.”

Christina Balit’s stylized art combines linear shapes and patterns with swirling designs and details. The bold lines and profiled faces—presented on full pages or broad borders—bring to mind the friezes that decorated Greek temples, and lush gem-stone hues add to the regal tone. Ideal for sharing aloud, this retelling makes a sound introduction to the protagonist and his adventures. Discuss the point of view, and ask students to cite examples from the text that establish Odysseus’s unique voice. Have your students retell another epic tale (or even superhero origin story) from the hero’s perspective and use detail and dialogue to create a distinctive voice for their character.

Dynamic language, rapid-fire pacing, spine-tingling suspense, and a sense of foreboding that looms larger than a Cyclops characterize Gillian Cross’s rendition of The Odyssey (Candlewick, 2012; Gr 8 Up). Both accessible and mesmerizing, the text emphasizes moments of heady hubris (e.g., a triumphant Odysseus cruelly taunting one-eyed Polyphemus after his escape) and relates even the most unsettling events with gusto. One unforgettable scene describes how the huge and evidently hungry Laestrygonian giants “slithered down the cliffs and waded into the water” to spear Odysseus’s “drowning men as though they were fish,” while the survivors rowed for their lives, “the terrible screams of their comrades echo[ing] in their ears.”

Odysseus’s trials and travails are presented in a straightforward chronology, making it easy to examine each adventure in succession and building to a satisfying climax. Cross neatly sews the threads of the storytelling tapestry together by interspersing updates from Ithaca about Penelope’s struggles with the suitors (that surround her in the wake of Odysseus’s long absence), summations of Telemachus’s father-seeking travels, and scenes stages from Mount Olympus revealing the gods’ fate-defining negotiations.

The Odyssey (Cross)
©2012 by Neil Packer

Appearing on almost every spread, Neil Packer’s masterfully rendered paintings depict, interpret, and vivify the text, adding a spectacular visual dimension to the storytelling. While certain elements (costumes, textiles and graphic designs, frieze-like silhouettes, etc.) pay homage to the tale’s origins, the tone is strikingly contemporary. Distorted proportions and shifts in point of view (e.g., Odysseus hanging one-handed from a branch and looking down into the swirling, fang-filled mouth of Charybdis) are used to great dramatic effect, as are detail-revealing cutaways and sinuous collage compositions.

Splashes of color—a brashly striped garment or of the burnished hue of the lotus fruit—contrast with the characters’ flat skin tones, mostly statuesque alabaster or earthy tones of brown. Some of the portrayals, particularly those of the monsters, veer into the grotesque, and depictions of the gods are far from idealized (Poseidon sports sparse wire-like hair, a potbelly, and a meshy fish-net shirt and Hermes is updated with contemporary runner’s gear). Filled with symbolism, evocative details, and emotion, each unique painting is worthy of close inspection and discussion.

Have your students explore the interplay between text and artwork. How do the illustrations set the scene, convey events, add to the characterizations? What themes have the author and artist chosen to emphasize? How does Cross’s approach—telling events in a third-person narration rather than having Odysseus recount his experiences—change the story’s impact? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using an omniscient narrator instead of a first-person account?

Graphic Novels
“Sing to me, O Muse, of that man of many troubles…skilled in all ways of contending, who wandered far after he helped sack the great city of Troy. Sing through me, and tell the story of his suffering, his trials and adventures, and his bloody homecoming.” An epic in its own right, Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel adaption of The Odyssey (Candlewick, 2010; Gr 7 Up) pairs euphonious language with expressive pencil-and-watercolor illustrations.

Book by book, the “greathearted” hero’s twist-turning tale is presented in dazzling depth and detail; familiar images and phrasings resonate throughout the thoughtfully abridged script, skillfully echoing the tone and telling of the original (each book is identified by number and aptly titled, allowing for easy comparison ). Establishing a strong sense of time and place while maintaining an air of wonder, the artwork depicts the action, augments characterizations, and provides a potent emotional veneer. Certain moments, such as Odysseus’s heartfelt reunion with the faithful hound Argos, are eloquently expressed through illustration only, and color—the cold blue of the roiling ocean, fire-bright orange inside the Cyclops’s cave, washed-out grays of the Land of the Dead—is used throughout to add poignancy and punch.

Have your students compare Hinds’s version to Homer’s poem and explore similarities and differences. What themes have been emphasized in the graphic novel? How are the characters’ actions, emotions, and challenges conveyed through the artwork? Does the artist’s portrayal of Odysseus match students’ individual perceptions of the hero? A teacher’s guide is available.

Taking a much more cursory approach, Sam Ita showcases the storied highlights of The Odyssey (Sterling, 2011; Gr 5 Up) in an eye-catching pop-up format. Succinct dialogue balloons briefly relate events, utilizing contemporary-sounding language and well-timed comic moments (asked where he’s been for the last 20 years, the hero tells Penelope, “Well, sweetheart, it’s an awfully long story”).

The visual effects are cleverly envisioned and well-designed: Penelope’s loom opens like a venetian blind to reveal a scene of the suitors plotting evil; a 3-D Trojan Horse stands dramatically in front of a burning city (readers can lift a flap to see the soldiers hidden within); a pull tab (and Circe’s moving wand) magically transforms a man into a pig; a pop-up of Odysseus’s ship (with oars that actually paddle) is surrounded by wing-fluttering sirens on one side and a serpent-headed Scylla on the other; and the hero, just returned to Ithaca and disguised as a “homeless guy,” pulls back a bow string (via a tab) and shoots an arrow through several axe heads. This high-energy hands-on retelling makes a great way to review plot elements and initiate discussion about the tale’s most-touted themes. How does the updated language and tongue-in-cheek humor affect the timbre of the story?

Add a little fun to your explorations with Christopher Ford’s entertaining graphic novel, Stickman Odyssey: An Epic Doodle (2011; Gr 5 Up). Banished from Sticatha by an evil throne-seizing witch, “far-wandering” Zozimos is determined to find his way home and claim his rightful place as king. However, along the way, the young hero is waylaid by mighty monsters (he cleverly defeats the gigantic Cyclops-like Boetheos by barfing in his eye), embroiled in breathtaking battles (bravely brandishing his stick sword), and met by challenges that test his courage and perseverance (along with his skill at talking to girls).

Ford’s stick-figure characters possess boundless energy and plenty of expression, and the script percolates with snarky dialogue, hilarious expletives (“BY ZEUS’ BUTT!”), and loads of irreverent humor. The action certainly is epic, and numerous (and comically skewed) references to the original are integrated into the plot. For example, Athena intervenes in the affairs of mortals with a few deft strokes of a giant pen (e.g., doodling out a raft for her protégé), and during a perilous ocean journey, Zosimos’s cohorts plug their ears with wax—not to protect themselves from the sirens’ song but to drown out their leader’s complaining. Students will enjoy making comparisons to Odysseus’s adventures and teasing out corresponding themes, characters, and images. The antics continue in Book Two: The Wrath of Zozimos (2012, both Philomel).

Choose one of these retellings and have your students explore the ways that a modern author reinterprets an ancient text. Compare two of the adaptations, and have youngsters identify similarities and differences in writing style, language usage, point of view, and predominant themes. Look at the visual interpretations and discuss how the illustrations vary in style, medium, and mood. Have your students research classical art images of Greek gods, heroes, and creatures in books or online (Theoi Greek Mythology is a great starting point) and make comparisons to the artwork in one or more of these retellings. Was the modern artist influenced by ancient images and in what way? Have youngsters demonstrate their knowledge of the text by picking a scene from The Odyssey, gathering details, and retelling, illustrating, or creating a comic-book version of the event.


The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those references in the above books and classroom activities:
RL. 6.6. Determine how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.
RL. 8.5. Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style.
RL. 8.9. Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths…including how the material is rendered new.
RL. 9-10.9. Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work….
W. 6.3-11-12.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
W. 6.9-11-12.9. Draw evidence from literary of informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
W. 9-10.7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question…or solve a problem…..

Curriculum Connections

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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  1. Teen readers looking for prose might also be interested in Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s SUMMER OF THE MARIPOSAS, which is a YA retelling of The Odyssey. Here’s SLJ’s starred review of it: http://www.slj.com/2012/11/books-media/reviews/pick-of-the-day/pick-of-the-day-summer-of-the-mariposas/. Similar curriculum connections could be applied, particularly looking at the parallels between the original Greek gods and monsters and those from Mexican folklore that McCall employs, and examining the difference between a male point of view in the original and a female one in the retelling.