Dining on the stories of the world

by Mr. Sheehy

Aug 23 2010 072

Months ago I began reading out of Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World books to my kids. We’d read after dinner while waiting for everyone to finish, a process that can take us an alarming stretch of time for those not adjusted to such a habit (we have been known to eat from 5:30 to 7:30, though that is not a regular stretch).

In one of Wise Bauer’s books we read about Beowulf and I decided to bust out the original, which I read selectively and which both girls loved (five and three at the time). I should mention that “selectively” only means I edited out long stretches of detail, not that I cut out gory parts. It’s the gory stuff they seemed to enjoy the most. After that Beowulf experience I got to thinking–these girls are going to love The Odyssey. Hence, our next long dinner reading, Mary Pope Osborne’s Stories from the Odyssey series, a set of six small books covering the entire Odyssey in edited detail. That series was great, capturing the basics without significant alterations and still engaging the readers. By the time we reached the battle with the suitors my four-year old was thirsty for some blood, and as any reader of The Odyssey or The Illiad knows, Homer didn’t let her down.

At the completion of The Odyssey, our dinner time readings had taken on a new dynamic. These readings weren’t about just history, they were about adventures. We appreciated the story of the world, it is true, but we’d formed an appetite for the stories of the world. That’s why I was so excited to stumble across Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book in our used book store. His Tanglewood Tales have been on my must-have list for a while but they’ve been tricky to find (well, tricky to find in our used bookstore, where we have trade-in credit) and here I had a nice hard-bound edition. We jumped right in with “The Gorgon’s Head,” a retelling of Perseus’ killing of Medusa. As one might expect, my kids loved it. The night we had to stop in the middle of reading about the three “Gray Women” we spent the rest of the evening pretending to share an eye and fighting over who got it next. On my first attempt at being an eyeless gray woman  I closed my eyes and A led me directly into a wall, where I cracked my nose surprisingly square. After that I pretended to have no eyes with my eyes open.

Hawthorne’s tale is not technically accurate, as a reading of even the Wikipedia article on Perseus will reveal, but it is far more fun, and, ironically enough, far more memorable (That is, ironic to a school teacher who might be tempted to have students memorize the “accurate” versions of the myths). Hawthorne himself makes this point in the Tanglewood porch introduction to the Gorgon’s Head:

I will tell you one of the nursery tales that were made for the amusement of our great old grandmother, the Earth, when she was a child in frock and pinafore. There are a hundred such; and it is a wonder to me that they have not long ago been put into picture books for little girls and boys. But, instead of that, old gray-bearded grandsires pore over them in musty volumes of Greek, and puzzle themselves with trying to find out when, and how, and for what they were made.

Hawthorne gets it, doesn’t he? Wouldn’t we have wanted him as our teacher instead of a stuffy professor?

We’ll continue to read these adventures each night at our dinner table, and perhaps along the way I’ll figure out how to create in my students the same blood thirsty anticipation I’ve created in my six- and four- and two-year olds.

Thanks for reading.