It’s been an uncommonly good year for graphic novel Greek myths, don’t you think? From George O’Connor’s amazing new series (starting with Zeus: King of the Gods) to two different takes on the Odyssey by Gareth Hinds and Tim Mucci, I suppose we have Percy Jackson to thank for this bountiful harvest of Greek God magnificence. Of course, all the books I’ve just mentioned are best suited for older readers. Let us not forget that there are nine-year-olds out there who’d like some mythmaking as well. Preferably in color. Preferably with a bit of humor stuck in for spice. If you were to plan the perfect kid-friendly version of these myths, I’ll be frank with you, you wouldn’t dream up Mike Townsend’s Amazing Greek Myths of Wonders and Blunders. Not because it isn’t good, of course, but because unless your brain has warped in all the right places NOBODY would be able to dream up a book like this one. Townsend taps into his love of pure animal extravaganza, producing a book so madcap, wild, uninhibited, and inspired that it’ll either burst the blood vessels in both your eyes upon contact with its content or you’ll find yourself so sucked in that only a steady diet of Pixie Stix and Yo Gabba Gabba will produce the same thrill. The back of the book reads, “WARNING: These aren’t your parents’ Greek Myths!” Actually they are. But when it comes to the presentation they are 100% kid.
There are several different ways to go about presenting a book of myths. You could be chronological or choose stories that have something in common. Townsend selects nine tales of his own and if there’s any connection between them, maybe it’s how much comic gold each one can potentially yield. So it is that we read about Pandora and her descent into box-related madness, Arachne and her big head, and a Pyramus and Thisbe that rivals A Midsummer Night’s Dream in hilarity. Side characters like a smelly donkey, doomed bunnies, and some stupid sheep add a little spice on the side. Townsend always remains essentially true to the original tales, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have a little fun along the way.
You don’t tend to expect to learn something new from a graphic novel, and I certainly expected to already know all the myths included in this book. ESPECIALLY the story of King Midas. What’s not to know? Midas is greedy, a god grants him the gift of turning stuff into gold, he can’t eat, his daughter gets transformed, end of story. I guess I somehow missed the entire Silenus element. Silenus, in one version of the story, was Dionysus’s teacher and one day he got lost. Midas found him and returned him to Dionysus who, in turn, granted Midas the gift of turning anything into gold. Kinda cool, and I certainly had never encountered that element in a children’s book before. Mind you, Townsend sort of ups the ante later when he includes other details from other stories that I’d forgotten (Hercules accidentally killing his whole family, anyone?). He may deviate from the originals when it comes to small details (I’m pretty sure Aphrodite didn’t walk about with her name emblazoned on her rear… though she totally would have, had she thought of it) but the essentials are always there.
With any book of Greek myths for kids you’re going to have to inevitably wonder how the author deals with all the sex. Gods have a tendency to bed pretty ladies and the results aren’t always family friendly. There are ways around this, of course. You can talk about sex in vague, “Apollo chased a pretty girl until she turned into a tree” terms and no one under the age of eleven will be the wiser. But Townsend’s solutions to these awkward elements are so ballsy that I actually felt my jaw hit the floor when they happened. Okay, you want an example? Check this out. If you know the story of Perseus then you know that his mother was kept away from all of mankind until Zeus arrived and impregnated her. Okay, so that’s in this book too, but Townsend’s method of impregnating the princess is, quite frankly, hilarious. The text says, “Nothing he [Acrisius] could do would ever keep the mighty Zeus from helping a lonely, pretty princess in need.” Zeus appears, says he’s here to help, points at her stomach, you see a gigantic pink “POOF”, and then the princess exclaims, “Wow, I’m pregnant!” Giving her the thumbs up Zeus points out that now she’ll never be lonely. I’m sorry, but that’s so gutsy it actually deserves some credit. I mean, why not go that route? Sure beats explaining how a beam of sunlight’s supposed to knock up a girl anyway. In another example of child-friending it up, Townsend makes Hades a bloke obsessed with perking up the underworld and Persephone a little girl whose very dances can grow flowers. Ipso facto, his interest in her is solely happy dance based. And I can dig it.
This isn’t the first children’s book Michael Townsend has seen fit to bless of with, of course. Back in the day he wrote the picture book Billy Tartle in Say Cheese and two Kit Feeny graphic novels. These books shared this book’s feel of barely suppressed insanity, but didn’t really connect in the same way. You got the feeling that Townsend was reeling himself in with each book. Like he wanted to just let go and either he couldn’t or someone else couldn’t allow him to do so. There was the palpable sense that with every turn page you might easily find yourself unexpectedly facing a scene of unsurpassed madness. It’s an unnerving quality to any work and maybe that’s why those books have sailed under the radar until now. Wonders and Blunders, in contrast, embraces Townsend’s wilder instincts and manages to do so in a way that kids just go gaga for.
I’m not lying to you when I say that since the moment my library purchased this book we have been 100% unable to keep it on the shelf. Some smart cataloger thought to place it in our Greek Myth section on the non-fiction shelf rather than the Graphic Novel part of the library. The result is that when a kid asks me for the Greek Myths I dutifully lead them over the 200s and their eyes zero in on Townsend’s red, yellow, and purple spine. Before I can so much as say, “They’re in this section” the child has burst from my side, grabbed the book from the shelf, and is running to the nearest comfy couch as if fearful that I’ll take the book away from them. There’s something about it that appeals to them in the same way Captain Underpants does. It’s that mix of adult and child humor, unafraid to be downright nutty in its pursuit of the funny. If you want something appropriate for small fry that’ll accidentally teach them about the Greek myths, almost by accident, Michael Townsend’s your man. A book that looks like nothing so much as an alternative comic mixed with a box of explosive Pop Rocks. And that’s a good thing.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent for review from publisher.
Other Blog Reviews:
- It was mentioned in SLJ‘s Oh My Gods! A Round-up of Greek Mythology Titles to Tempt Teen Movie Fans.
- Looks as though it was also included on YALSA’s 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens Nominations.