One of the joys of reading with my children is of connecting them with great literature. Happily, you don’t have to wait until they are in high school to introduce them to classic stories from the distant past. Today you can find wonderful picture books of ancient tales designed for young readers. Here are some of our favorites:
Disclosure: I received complimentary copies of several of the books below for review purposes; however, all opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I receive a small commission at no extra charge to you.
Ancient Tales for Young Readers
Of course I have to start with the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first great works of literature. This epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia dates from the early 3rd century BC and is a staple of high school world literature classes (or at least it was in mine!) But this is no dry tale that is foisted upon hapless students by cruel teachers, it is actually a really fascinating story that instantly drew in my kids. I highly recommend the picture book trilogy Gilgamesh the King by Ludmila Zeman. This series beautifully retells this epic story in a format that young children can easily understand and appreciate. She glosses over some of the more “adult” aspects of the original to create a kid-friendly version of these ancient tales that is nevertheless faithful to the spirit of the classic text. There are battles and quests, mystery, friendship, and romance. Really, what’s not to love?
This wonderful new series is inspired by the classic epic poem by Ferdowsi, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). The first installment, The Story of Zal & Simorgh, tells of Zal, born with hair and skin as white as snow. His unusual appearance frightened his father so much that he abandoned the baby at the foot of a mountain. Yet Zal is saved by a mythical creature, a magical bird called Simorgh who raises the boy into manhood. Yet Zal is grown and encounters his father again, can he choose love over bitterness and forgive the man who left him to die? This is a wonderful story that touches on classic themes of love, friendship, and forgiveness. The story is engaging for younger readers, and the illustrations are beautiful! I love the attention given to details of the historical and cultural elements. One of my favorite spreads shows court musicians playing traditional Persian instruments. Such a beautiful tribute to this rich cultural heritage!
I am so excited that these stories from Shahnameh are now available for young readers. It is not well known in the West, and what copies are available are really too dense for children. When we studied ancient Iran earlier this year, I checked out a copy of the original Shahnameh and found it really was too difficult for my elementary aged son. That is why I jumped at the chance to review Shahnameh For Kids – The Story of Zal & Simorgh and am excited that they now have a Kickstarter to publish the 2nd and 3rd books in the series – it’s an all or nothing campaign that ends in just a few weeks, so don’t miss the chance to help make it happen!
Related Post: Folktales from Iran
The Monkey King: A Classic Chinese Tale for Children is a wonderfully fun story inspired by Chinese legends about the trickster Monkey. Long ago, the Jade King sent a pure-hearted monk on a journey to bring back the teachings of Buddha from India, in order to bring peace and order to the kingdom. This book is about the beginnings of this epic journey, and how helpers were recruited along the way, including Monkey. It seems that every step of the way the monk is set upon by enemies, but when they find out that he is on a mission for the Jade King, they have a change of heart and want to help him. As it turns out, the often short-tempered Jade King has condemned them to their current fates because of having offended him. They realize that if they help the monk, they may gain the King’s favor again and so return to their former lives.
This story has plenty of twists and turns, with battle scenes and narrow escapes and a cast of colorful characters. But I could just get lost in the lush illustrations. They are so beautiful and full of life that each page invites you to fall into it head first. This is one you will treasure on your bookshelf.
If you want to introduce your children to Greek mythology or get them excited about poetry, I highly recommend Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths. Each poem retells one of the Greek myths as a “reverso” poem, meaning it can be read the same forwards and backwards. The poems are so cleverly written, as each half of the poem gives emphasis to different words, often changing the mean of each line completely. Children who are starting to learn these ancient tales will enjoy seeing them captured in this format, and it is also a great way to spark their own creativity about poetry.