How do your average everyday children’s book illustrators go about proving themselves in this day and age? Well, I don’t know what they teach these youngsters in design school. To my mind, there must be a couple standard tropes they all follow. Illustrators like to prove themselves by creating alphabet books and stories in the public domain. Nursery rhymes, Aesop fables, fairy tales, that sort of thing. Greek myths also happen to be in the public domain, but not that many artists have taken the time to illustrate them beautifully for children. There’s the D’Aulaires version and that’s really the only collection of myths to come to mind. I’m waxing poetic on the subject of artists and myths because I have recently had the pleasure to read “The McElderry Book of Greek Myths”, as retold by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Pep Montserrat. In it we read about every myth from Echo to Persephone. From Icarus to the Minotaur. Kimmel retells each tale with his own particular style. It’s a problematic retelling, but not without its perks.
I think I may have stared for the longest amount of time not at any one picture in this gorgeously illustrated book, but at the copyright page instead. According to the publication page, “The illustrations for this book are rendered electronically.” Hmmm. Nope, I don’t know what that means. How do you define “rendered”? If these pictures were truly created entirely on a computer then color me very much amazed. Truly illustrator/artist Pep Montserrat has outdone himself with some of these images. The endpapers call to mind the black and red figure painting techniques found on ancient Greek vases. You can almost see the brush strokes on some of these images. Many look as if they were painted on top of wood. If it’s all the work of a computer then it’s advanced work indeed.
Montserrat includes a level of detail in his pictures that demands to be appreciated as well. Look, for example, at the image of Hades reclining merrily under a tree mere moments before seeing Persephone and falling in love. Montserrat angles the red god’s arms so that they form the curves of a red heart. The leaves that have fallen around him are heart-shaped as well. You almost wouldn’t notice the mole, earthworm, and centipede sticking their noses out of the ground, calling to mind the place where Persephone soon will be. I also loved that some of his characters have a distinctly early 21st century touch. Orpheus, for example, sports a haircut that any hipster in Williamsburg would be keen to repeat. And there is also the sheer beauty of Montserrat’s art to consider. From sunsets to moonlit nights, Montserrat’s pictures will ensnare and engage readers young and old with their beauty.
These myths belong to the world, and I suppose that you could make the argument that no one author owns the “true” story behind each one. Yet I would have liked very very much for Mr. Kimmel to have said where he got these stories in the first place. I know he retold them, but the Note from the Author is silent as to where they were found and there is no back matter to this book. It’s important to know where an author gets his source material, particularly when his adaptations of certain myths sound new. Pandora now is lured by voices coming out of the box, begging her to release them, rather than her own curiosity. Moreover, her husband (here it is Epimetheus) says that the fault is his because “I should have explained what was in the box and why it had to remain closed.” And remember the story of Medea and what happened to her children? Well, according to this version Medea and Jason never had any kids. She even decides not to marry Jason saying, “You are a coward, like all men. I do not need a husband,” before flying away in a chariot. And Narcissus falls in love with his own image because Artemis makes a spring reflect objects to be ten times more beautiful than they are (Montserrat ignores this change, however, and the illustration just shows a standard reflection no prettier than its subject).
Kimmel’s changes serve to, ironically enough, humanize the gods. They become more sympathetic under his hand. Hades is the kind of guy who likes to lie on the grass picking flowers. When Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus she ends up with, “a much better husband than Theseus could ever have been,” in the god Dionysius. I understand that with myths there is usually not a single version of any story. And authors are allowed to play with the existing tale and liven it up a bit. Yet without citing any of his sources we’re not sure if Kimmel just produced these stories from memory, if he consulted other children’s book versions, or if these come directly from a Greek translation somewhere. Even if he had just said that it was the Ovid version or the Hellenistic, that would have been enough. And without knowing it’s hard to hand this book to a kid without wondering if you’re given them a flawed text.
I think that if you’re looking for a great book of Greek myths, The McElderry Book may be more effective at providing great illustrations than retelling the stories everyone knows and loves. All authors are allowed a certain amount of creative license, but this should not be considered a primary source. It’s a fine supplement for those kids who have already heard them, and the pictures are worth the price of the book alone, but consider other sources for a collection of the original myths, sad endings and all. Lovely and worth keeping, but best if it is paired with something like the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.