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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

First Greek Myths - Jason and The Golden Fleece

Author: Saviour Pirotta
Illustrator: Jan Lewis
Publisher: Orchard Books, Hachette Children's Books, 2009

I've been excited about reviewing this book for a while, or more so, Pirotta's First Greek Myth series from Orchard Books. These books were the first books Alf (3 years old at the time, but 7 now) requested we borrow again from the library (music to my ears). These were also the first books I found Alf trying to read himself, unprovoked (again, a really special moment for a mum bookblogger). As part of the Orchard Colour Crunchies series these books are intended as 'early readers' but personally I think they need a shout-out as possibly the best books for emerging g independent readers, they're exciting, the perfect length, great illustrations (fascinating, maybe a tad scary, but that's part of the appeal), and full of the essence of adventure: fights, swords, monsters to defeat, voyages, magic, wishes made, promises broken. I'm a fan, and testimony to the longevity of this series, when I left the featured title on the sofa last night, ready to review, Alf picked it up and said, 'ah great! I love these books! Can you read this to me now?' (Recommended reading from 3 years to 7, and upwards and counting then!)

Interestingly, and as a nod to promoting more female leads in children's literature I like to think, in Jason and The Golden Fleece, Pirotta frames the main character not as Jason but Princess Medea, who is introduced first, and whom gets the final exposition on the closing page of the book. This is refreshing, especially as a rewrite of the male-hero binary that normally dominates adaptations of the Greek Myths. Medea is even portrayed as superhero-like with the text declaring, 'At last the powerful princess was free' supported by a picture of Medea looking majestic, with hands held aloft. My three year old daughter approves, and like her brothers, requests this title specifically.  

It's worth saying that each book in the First Myths series starts with a 'cast list' displaying two of the key characters in the book, and how to pronounce their names phonetically. Again this is useful for emergent readers, and for reading adults alike as some of the Greek names are impossible sounding in appearance to say on first reading.  

As the story of Jason and The Golden Fleece is so well known I won't linger on the narrative, only to say that in this version, unlike other children's versions of this myth I've read,  Medea is instrumental in every aspect of Jason winning the Golden Fleece (how postfeminist!)Though this empowered portrayal of women doesn't always transcend in this series: in Theseus and The Man-Eating Monster, for example, poor Ariadne is tricked and left on a desert island by Theseus (in other versions she returns on the boat with Theseus (and reminds him to put the white sail up, which prevents Theseus's father from killing himself). Personally, while it's great to see a positive, strong female characterisation in Medea, I also like the darker interpretation of the Myths. The Greek Myths themselves should be essential reading for any child, they're captivating, and the cornerstone of modern narrative conventions (or so I've read before). 

Beyond being perfectly concise and full of well chosen 'early reader' appropriate vocabulary,  I also like these books for the illustrations, particularly the many head shots with expressions told in the eyes. My eldest son really dislikes drawing, but the cartoon-like nature of the humans in this book inspired his attempt at a potrait based on one of the head shots. The illustrations are simplistic, bright and effective, with the layout of each page uncluttered, and so consecutive reading passages are easily signpost. 

In all then, these are exhilarating short reads. I'm so grateful to my local library for stocking these and in so doing, introducing me and my children to this fantastic series. I think they'd be perfect for supplementing reading in school libraries for KS1.  
If you like the representation of strong female leads in children's literature mentioned here, you might also like: Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole

Here are all the titles in the series (I bought them all as I had to stop borrowing them again and again from the library):

And thanks to starting out on these really simple condensed versions of the Greek Myths, Alf (7) now loves the 1963 Ray HarryHausen Columbia Pictures production of 'Jason and The Argonauts'. This film is a great way to support the reading, and vice versa.

Watch exerts from the film here: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

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