Interview: Dr. Simon Spence and his Early Myths Children Books - Bringing Myths to Life for Children
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
The Greek myths are a fantabulous bunch of tales, each one a story of adventure, danger and intrigue that humans have been excitably sharing for thousands of years.
There's been literally thousands of different versions told of these myths, yet scant few which are suitable for young children. This void has certainly proved a challenge for parents and teachers to overcome when trying to find ways of sharing the original Greek myths with children. Thankfully, there's now an easy option for adults everywhere; Early Myths, a series of picture books, is the ideal way to share Greek mythology in a fun and exciting way with young children.
Created by Dr Simon Spence and illustrator Colm Lawton, Early Myths has now reached the milestone of ten books. As such, we thought it was the ideal time to speak to Simon about Greek mythology. We cover the challenges of adapting myths for young children, how Simon researches each tale and just exactly which is his favourite mythological character of ALL TIME.
But before that, here's a link* to the first Early Myths book, Perseus.
Adrian - What was it that inspired you to write books about ancient Greek mythology for children?
Simon Spence - Back in 2013, my eldest daughter turned 3 years old. She started to ask about the stories I read as a child and I wanted to tell her some of the Greek myths. There were lots of Greek myth books but many of the illustrations didn’t reflect the stories in a way I liked. Some were aimed at an older age group and some needed to be refreshed as I felt the styles were dated.
I also had a concern about generic myths; myth books which seek to merge the various versions into one neat tale. This happens frequently with large myths such as the story of Herakles/Hercules. To me there was merit in focusing on the oldest version and to focus on this to deal with a more coherent segment. This is what led me to setting up Early Myths- myths which pay homage to the earliest Greek myths up to around 400 BCE. Our books aim to tell these original stories to the youngest readers, under 10 years of age. I wanted grown-ups to be able to read these to their child, and for children starting out in primary school, to read them without being overwhelmed by the vastness of the mythology and all its links.
Adrian - What challenges have there been adapting these myths and their themes for a young audience?
Simon - Focus. With the breath of Greek mythology, I believe it is best to have one main character and to tell this tale in a fun but simple manner. We worked on bright and colourful images, alongside easy to read text. However there was one area which I did not want to compromise on- and that’s names! We haven’t shied away from the Greek names such as Herakles, Bellerophon, the Graiai, and the Stymphalian Birds. There is a fun and wonder in pronouncing these, and as we always say, even if the grown-ups need to catch up, the kids will love them! We decided to place the names and sounds on our website to let the oldies do their homework to avoid their embarrassment, but for the kids these offer a playful language! As we know from other children’s books such as Harry Potter, fantastical names and characters are part of the entertainment.
In terms of the scary stuff, there are some stories which we may have to avoid, but we also didn’t want to water elements down too much. There have been few occasions where we stopped for a moment and considered how to handle a tale, such as the beheading of Medusa or the boiling of King Pelias by his daughters. But in the end these are fundamental elements of the story and kids are very familiar with handling magical elements from fairytales and folklore. It’s all a matter of choosing words carefully and making what could be a disturbing episode into a fantastical adventure.
Probably the hardest challenge has been the choice of female heroes. We have always aimed to choose heroes, female or male, and to treat them in an equal manner, knowing we have a lot of young boys and girls reading our books. One little secret - Atalanta is one of the favourite of our books to date, and a story which I’m most proud of.
This is partly because the tale is such a great story, but also because of the feedback from the readers. We have had kids sending us messages to say they have appeared as Atalanta on school dress-up days and the parents send us emails to thank us for writing a character which does not fall into the old Disney-princess category. We have books on Persephone and Helen and although we haven’t quite hit the 50/50 mark between men and women in our characters, we are always looking for strong female protagonists.
Adrian - How do you go about choosing which Greek myths to write about?
Simon - This is a very personal choice. The first two books in our collection were connected to my own research. I completed a Classics PhD in Greek mythology, covering the tale of Jason and Medea in evidence up to Euripides’ Medea in 431 BCE. This also included many parallels to Bellerophon and Perseus. Perseus became our first book due to its neat narrative structure and tale of adventure. Jason became book 2, but I used the Jason I had researched for my PhD and the focus was the extant evidence from the earliest version of the myth.
After that it was a matter of finding a character with a compelling narrative. It is too easy to create a compendium of events, where Hero A does this and that, but without a coherent tale running through the book. Atalanta and Bellerophon are examples of myths which may not be so well know, but they have a great story which gives a wonderful structure to their tale.
Adrian - There are often many different versions of each myth, how do you go about resolving this problem?
Simon - This is true and it was an issue right from the start. I have read many children’s books which try to cram in all elements, Greek and Roman, mashing together material from different time periods. This is a very random method and can fail to find a clear tale or sense of the character. But our task was made easier by that very early decision; to only focus on early Greek myth up to the end of the fifth century. By doing this, we tend to look at Homer, Hesiod, the lyric poets, the tragedians and then the visual art.
Lots of our images are influenced by vase paintings and sculptures, something we highlight at the back of each book. We have a “Notes for Grown Ups” section, discussing our sources and how archaic and classical vase paintings and sculptures have influenced our pictures. When I brief my illustrator, I always send him images of the original Greek art, quotes form the literary sources and we take many elements directly from these examples. I know it is easy to say, but we do try to remain faithful to the original sources.
Adrian - What is the process for writing one of your books?
Simon - We start out with the research, checking the sources to build up an outline of the tale. Once I have a framework, I begin sending briefing information to my illustrator, Colm, and he will send me some draft sketches. These tend to be rough pencil drawings and we debate the changes before he prepares a colour version. I like to remain faithful to (or at least reference) Classical Greek art, and so there will be lots of elements borrowed from vase painting and sculpture. As Colm prepares the images, I’m writing the book.
At the end we tend to make some final revisions to the pictures and I revise my writing, and we have our colleagues proofing the text. All in all, the process begins at the start of the year and we generally publish the book in the Autumn.
Adrian - Who's your favourite character in ancient Greece mythology and why?
Simon - The Atalanta story will always be special, but my favourite is Jason. I think the Jason myth is one of those misunderstood tales as the story was very different to the version portrayed in Greek tragedy, especially the Jason in Euripides’ Medea (431 BCE). Before this, the character of Jason was far more dynamic and close to the heroic tales of Theseus, Odysseus, Bellerophon and Perseus.
Of all of our books, our ‘Jason and the Golden Fleece’ might be the most surprising for some myth fans, as we went right back to looking at the evidence (literary and visual) and remained faithful to the early strands. Our Jason is a strong leader of his crew, and an all-round hero. He was raised in the mountain by the centaur Cheiron, and this thinking hero who has an enlightened education is something close to my heart. In this modern world of polar opposites and one dimension thinking, the holistic education of the ancient hero is something to be admired, and not simply strength-based, army education. Jason is a statesman, a politician, a leader and a fighter.
His partnership relationship with Medea is a very different to the tragedy of Euripides, and I think this is a tale worth telling as it recaptures some of the very first ingredients in his myth. It does not include Medea’s deliberate killing of their children, which was a Euripidean invention. Instead Medea plays a “hero-helper” role and the outcome of their journey is far more positive.
Adrian - Can you give us a little info about your upcoming releases?
Simon - Absolutely not, that would spoil all of the fun! Ha ha. Sorry I can’t name any new characters just yet, but needless to say we are hard at work on our tenth book, which will be released later this year, and we aim to continue for many more years with these tales. Given the feedback and book awards to date we are inspired to write and draw these wonderful tales.
Adrian - As you reach book 10, what has been one of your highlights to date?
Simon - I always love getting stories from families about their favourites character and how they have enjoyed the books on their holidays, as gifts from relatives, or to simply to satisfy a curiosity they had in the myths and how they found our books to be the most accessible and fun versions.
One other main highlight was the foreword for our Persephone book, by the wonderful actor, writer, director and comedian, Stephen Fry. Stephen agreed to do this for us even though he was busy with his own Greek myth books (Heroes, Mythos and Troy) and his writing and support have been inspiring.
Adrian - And finally, have you any plans to expand Early Myths to look at other mythologies? We'd love to read a series on Isis and Horus!
Simon - Not for now, but we remain open minded. Being based in Ireland, we were also approached about the idea of looking at the Irish myth heroes, such as Cuchulainnn. But for now we are focussed on our first love, the Greeks, many of whom inspired me as an 8 year old. In the short term there is plenty of material to cover before we branch out. For me to be so engaged in these books I think there has to be a slight selfishness in the stories, and the Greek myths have been part of my life now for about 40 years.
A big thank you to Simon for taking the time to have a chat with us!
To read the Early Myths book there are a few different formats to choose from. Each book in the series is available as a paperback from Amazon. There are also Kindle versions and two audiobooks - a format Simon is intending to expand. eBook versions are also available on Apple Books including read-along audio and Greek name sound buttons.
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