Five Books That Inspired Me To Update The Classics by Ian Lendler
Greetings, Nerdlings! As they say in radio, I’m a long time reader, but first time writer.
My first graphic novel, The Stratford Zoo Presents Macbeth, has just come out in stores. It’s the story of the animals at the Stratford-On-Avon Zoo who entertain themselves by performing the works of their hometown hero, William Shakespeare. Or as I like to call him, “Old Willy.”
Translating one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays into an entertaining, kid-friendly book may seem like…well…an odd choice. So I’d like to talk about a few books that inspired me to make the classics accessible to kids.
Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm by Phillip Pullman
If you met me when I was 10, I was probably carrying around the 880 page Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Or as I called it, The Big Green Brick. The Brick didn’t leave my side for several years.
But I will now publicly throw my childhood love to the wolves. The great Phillip Pullman took Grimm’s fairy tales, rightly acknowledged as masterpieces of concise story-telling, and somehow made them even tighter. He removed the fusty language that loitered around old editions and created the most engaging versions of these tales ever made.
I could recommend it on that alone, but Pullman goes one better. His brief introduction is a better analysis of these stories than any college literature course I’ve ever taken. And as an added bonus, at a comparatively lean 400 pages, falling asleep while reading this Grimm won’t cause you to be crushed to death.
Daulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire
The Olympian Series by George O’Connor
How should I introduce my children to Greek myths? Do I go with D’aulaire’s Greek Myths? With its colorful illustrations and accessible text, this is the book is that is probably most responsible for me becoming a children’s book writer. And unlike a lot of older classics, it hasn’t worn with age one bit.
On the other hand George O’Connor is creating modern classics as we speak. His ability to squeeze multiple stories into each graphic novel has turned this series into one of the most complete (and entertaining) compilations of Greek myths in any format. The only reason I hesitate to mention this series is simply a twinge of hipster pride. These books are instantly (and deservedly) on the NYT best-seller list. You don’t need my help knowing that they exist.
So which one will I show my kids first? D’aulaire, I suppose. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.
Rabbi Harvey by Steve Sheinkin
In a better world, Steve Sheinkin would not be the successful author of fabulous non-fiction like Bomb and The Notorious Benedict Arnold. In a better world, he would be the wildly successful author of more books in the Rabbi Harvey series. But perhaps the world simply wasn’t ready for a graphic novel about the Talmud-inspired adventures of a rabbi in the backwoods of the 19th-century American West.
Yes, you read that right. And it’s great. Really great.
With his off-beat illustrations and the dry humor of his main character, Sheinkin spins such entertaining stories that you don’t even realize you are being introduced to the greatest hits of Jewish culture. Plus, Rabbi Harvey throws a mean fastball.
Yes, you read that right too.
Raven by Gerald McDermott
As #weneeddiversity fans well know attest, there’s a great body of mythology that we didn’t have access to when we were young. This is a tragedy because the structure of other cultures’ myths are so different that it expands your sense of what stories can do.
McDermott’s Trickster series takes a large step towards rectifying that problem and should be in every library. Besides being a great survey of world mythology, McDermott rightly guessed that any trickster tale would strike a chord with kids. I can attest to that. My children love these books.
But the reason I single out Raven is 1) the artwork of Northwestern Native Americans holds a unique and iconic position in world art, but I struggle to think of any other children’s books that feature it and 2) it’s fun and funny and mysterious and that’s the whole reason I read to my kids in the first place.
Takeshita Demons by Cristy Burne
I’ve read a lot of mythology in my day. I know my Loki from my Kokopelli. So I thought nothing could surprise me anymore. But until I read Takeshita Demons, I had no idea that Japanese mythology has blood-thirsty demons that transform into flying heads that eat children.
And when Cristy Burne makes one of these nukekubi demons into a young girl’s school-teacher, you know you’re in for a ripping-good yarn. Takeshita Demons attempts to do for Japanese mythology what Percy Jackson did for the Greeks. But this book gains extra pop since its creatures feel fresh simply because they’re rarely seen in Western books. To which I say, more child-eating demons, please!
When Ian Lendler was younger, he really enjoyed acting in the theater. He was, however, extremely terrible at it. So he became a writer of children’s books (An Undone Fairy Tale and Saturday) and non-fiction. But in order to support his family, he took a day job de-worming animals at the Stratford-on-Avon Zoo. He immediately recognized the talents of the troupe and began working with them on diction, dialect, and not eating the audience. When not working with his talented cast and crew, Ian sells lemonade on the sidewalk and plays the ukulele in San Rafael, CA.