Friday, December 15, 2006

Classics for Children

Like everyone else, we read aloud anything and everything; but there are certain books which help form the foundation for a classical literary education, and which we therefore like to read with regularity, and which have quickly become family favorites. Note that these aren't "classic children's literature" in the sense of books like Black Beauty or Treasure Island, but (with the exception of the first entry) children's versions of adult literature. I'm listing them in rough order of increasing listening difficulty (judging by experience with the Offspringen).

Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose.
Classical literature is at bottom folk literature, so why not start with the rhymes that every child should become familiar with. Many classical homeschoolers prefer the older The Real Mother Goose, but I love dePaola's collection. DePaola worked from the Opies' classic versions (Iona and Peter Opie were the leading scholars in children's literature), and one of his clear, charming illustrations accompanies each rhyme. Really either of these collections would be an excellent choice. Or both....

Mighty Men, Eleanor Farjeon.
Long out of print, Mighty Men briefly tells famous stories from history, ranging from Alexander's taming of Bucephalus to Ogier the Dane to the Battle of Hastings. Each story concludes with a simple poem to help children remember the names and events. Originally published as two volumes, "From Achilles to Julius Caesar" (classical stories) and "From Beowulf to William the Conqueror" (British stories); be sure to buy the combined volume.

The Oxford Book of Poetry for Children, ed. Edward Blishen.
My favorite juvenile poetry collection, ever. Unlike Oxford's later editions (which are completely different), Blishen didn't choose poetry written specifically for children, but gathered together poems that he enjoyed as a child, and that children like to read and learn by heart, whether it was intended for them or not. Includes gems as diverse as Robert Graves' surreal "Warning to Children" and Keats "Meg Merrilies."

The Song of Robin Hood, Anne Malcolmson. Illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton (Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel).
For the purists who know that, before Howard Pyle and even before Disney, Robin Hood was a collection of stupendously popular ballads. Malcolmson has simplified the language slightly, and Castagnetta provides the music from traditional airs, and where possible the original surviving tunes. (Some of them can be heard at The Contemplator, the website for all your folk ballad needs.)

The Aesop for Children, Milo Winter.
Comprehensive collection of over 100 fables, with beautiful illustrations, and not dumbed down. Reprint of the 1919 original. In print in softcover, but hunt down a used hardcover instead.

The Children's Bible.
Easy to read, beautifully illustrated, and comprehensive, this includes stories left out of many children's Bible story books, such as David and Abigail, the death of Elisha, and Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Unfortunately it doesn't include the Deuterocanonical texts, so for the stories of Judith, Tobit, and the revolt of the Maccabees (for instance) are excluded. From Golden Press, which spent the '60's publishing some of the best children's versions of the classics ever.

Gilgamesh: Man's First Story, Bernarda Bryson.
I believe the only children's version of Gilgamesh currently in print is the unsatisfactory trilogy by Ludmila Zeman, which drives anyone familiar with the real story to distraction, despite its beautiful illustrations. Bryson's Gilgamesh is much more accurate, while nevertheless glossing over certain age-inappropriate incidents like Enkidu's athletic tryst with the young priestess.

Shakespeare's Verse (formerly A Treasury of Shakespeare's Verse), selected by Gina Pollinger.
One of our best homeschooling insights was that little children are always being read things they don't quite understand, yet they don't seem to mind until they're taught to mind. Little babies don't understand "Barber, barber, shave a pig," and preschoolers don't understood "As it fell out on a sunshining day/ When Phoebus was in his prime," but they're not bored, and they eventually make sense of the words. It's only when they hit school that great anxiety sets in about Age-Appropriate Vocabulary, and they're quickly trained to lose patience with passages featuring words or sentences that they don't immediately grasp. So don't worry that little kids won't enjoy the unadapted Shakespeare in this book because the vocabulary is difficult for you, the adult; "hither" and "doth" and even "the bare-picked bone of majesty/ Doth dogged war bristle his angry crest" will be happily overlooked by the young, who understand well enough the main thrust of these short Shakespearean passages and will quickly get the hang of much of the archaic language.

Stories of Beowulf Told to the Children, H. E. Marshall.
I bought this wonderful little blue volume when Offspring #1 was just a tiny bit, and am delighted to find that's it's recently been reprinted, almost 100 years after its original publication. I can't tell from the Amazon listing if the reprint includes the beautiful (and often surprisingly scary for a children's book) color plates of the original.

D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire. If you're a classical homeschooler, this is probably one of the first books you bought. Wonderful stories, wonderful illustrations (though am I the only person who thinks the monster Ceto on p. 121 looks like an aquatic potato?), and always in print.

D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths (formerly Norse Gods and Giants), Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire.

The Iliad and the Odyssey, adapted by Jane Werner Watson, illus. by Alice and Martin Provensen.
Another of Golden Press' excellent contributions to the classical education of young people. Has a handy pronunciation guide in the back, useful for grownups whose own education was acquired by reading and may be uncertain of the Greek names. Best of all, illustrated by the inimitable Provensens, whose instantly recognizable art graced many Golden Press publications forty years ago.

The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, Special Edition for Young Readers, ed. by A. Kent and Constance Hieatt. Illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren.
Another winner from Golden Press.

Stories from Wagner, J. Walker McSpadden. This 1905 collection is the closest I've been able to find to a children's version of the Nibelungenlied. Besides "The Ring of the Curse," it includes Parsifal, Lohengrin, Tannhauser, and other Wagnerian classics. No illustrations other than the occasional color plate.

Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls, ed. by W. H. Weston.
The usual early-twentieth-century children's version, with lovely color plates and challenging language. Found it for fifty cents at a used book store, just about to make the trip out to the recycling plant. Philistines.

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