Review of the Day: Z is for Zeus
Z is for Zeus: A Greek Mythology Alphabet
By Helen L. Wilbur
Illustrated by Victor Juhasz
Sleeping Bear Press
On shelves now
People love them their alphabet books. An alphabet book is like a blank sheet of paper. You can impose upon it any form, content, or random natterings you so desire. Designers love to create design-heavy versions (ala The Graphic Alphabet). Authors use them to convey eclectic stories and rhymes ( Chicka Chicka Boom Boom). And then there are the people who use them as almost non-fiction texts. Publisher Sleeping Bear Press is a big big fan of that latter category. Every year, it seems, they’re publishing S Is for Shamrock: An Ireland Alphabet, or M Is for Masterpiece: An Art Alphabet. Seems only natural that they’d eventually get to Z is for Zeus: A Greek Mythology Alphabet. I’m a skeptic at heart, and normally I wouldn’t quite understand why a book about Greek Myths would need an abecedarian hook to get it off the ground. After flipping through this puppy, however, it’s clear to me that Z is for Zeus distinguishes itself from the pack through a new form of storytelling, and an artist that’s just the right combination of wry and raucous.
From A to Z, author Helen L. Wilbur introduces us to Ancient Greece and the myths that went along with that period in history. Starting with "A is for Ancient Greece", each page contains a picture of the scene with copious text along the sides. Some spreads discuss the creatures and people of the myths, such as "B is for Beauties and Beasts". Other times they relate to a single myth, such as "K is for King Midas". Illustrator Victor Juhasz’s lively illustrations truly bring these characters to life, giving the overall book a sense of movement and excitement. Additional information is found at the front and back of the text with lists of words derived from mythical names and a Glossary of the Gods.
I liked author Helen L. Wilbur’s choice to start a myth in one section of the book and end it later on in the text. The story of the Trojan War begins with "I is for Iliad" and then continues through "J is for the Judgment of Paris" (kind of a stretch for J, but okay), "T is for Trojan Horse" and "V is for Voyage". Kids that know their Greek mythology primarily through stories like The Lightning Thief will recognize a lot of familiar faces here, as well as beasts and people they have not yet encountered. Having the long text on the sides also means that those parents who want to use this alphabet book with younger kids will be able to do so by reading the rhymes that go with each letter rather than the supplementary material.
All well and good, but illustrator Victor Juhasz was the real reason I wanted to review this book. Juhasz is probably best known for his editorial cartoons and caricatures, but once in a while he’ll dip into the world of picture books as well. Though he can be perfectly polished when he wants to be, here Juhasz has employed a sketchy style that looks like a combination of graphite and watercolor. The result is a lot of action. Fighting, running, warring, and a bevy of beautiful beasties as well. Personally, I like Juhasz best when he’s being wry. There’s a great picture in here of a bored Echo raising one quizzical eyebrow as the object of her affection, Narcissus, stares entranced at his own reflection. And Juhasz isn’t afraid to put some good old-fashioned satyrs chasing nymphs in here. There’s no discussion of what would happen if the satyrs actually caught the nymphs, of course, and the nymphs are totally into it anyway so well done, sir. This is a great example of how to hint at sex without actually showing anything. I’m all for it.
Of course, sometimes it seemed as if Juhasz was filling in the gaps for the author. For instance, take a good long look at the "O is for Olympus" page. There we can see some twelve gods and goddesses posing for the camera, family style. Now, if you just read the descriptions, you’d have no idea why Hephaestus has produced a metal heart and is presenting it to a physically repulsed Aphrodite. If you know your Greek mythology outside of what you’ve read here, however, you’d know that Hephaestus was married to Aphrodite (which didn’t keep her from sleeping around on him, but that’s another story).
For the most part, these are the myths we all know and love. And there was really only one part of the book that made me scratch my head in confusion. On the "G is for Gods and Goddesses" double page spread the notes on the side of the page talk about Selene the moon goddess and Helios, the sun god. I was a little surprised to see these particular names in the book, since I would have figured that the names Apollo and Artemis were more common and recognizable. Then again Apollo is known as Apollo Helios and Helios is definitely recognized amongst the Greeks, so I was willing to let it go. Then I got to the "O is for Olympus" page and lo and behold there stand Apollo and Artemis looking nothing like the aforementioned Helios and Selene. Confusing indeed. I find it hard to believe that this was a flub since artist Victor Juhasz would have had to have drawn them both, so exactly what versions of these myths are we working from here? I would have appreciated some backmatter or suggested reading for kids who wanted to know more about Greek Gods and Goddesses (and to say where Wilbur was getting her stories from) but no such Bibliography exists. So while I like this book quite a lot and would recommend it, be aware that it has a couple kinks in the system.
I’m sure you feel that libraries are well stocked enough with Greek tales. And certainly this year alone we’re seeing a bunch of different mythology-based titles hitting our shelves. Still, for something just a touch out of the ordinary but with a lot of information packed in, I’m opting for Z is for Zeus as one of my favorite picks. You can never have enough myth books, and this is one of the more amusing titles you will find.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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