Myths and folktales are an important part of cultural heritage across the world. They are also a great way of getting kids excited about ancient history and culture. Whether it’s creation myths or animal fables, heroic legends, or stories of ghosts and ghouls, these tales that have been passed down through the generations are filled with excitement and wonder that is sure to delight young readers.
However, when it comes to mythology books for children, the focus tends to be on those traditions found in Europe. Greek and Roman take centre stage, while Norse and Celtic traditions follow shortly behind. There’s no doubt that these ancient cultures produced fascinating mythological canons, that have remained compelling to this day, however there still a whole world of other cultures and histories to explore. Traditions outside of the European continent can get sadly overlooked, despite offering a wealth of fascinating and captivating stories.
With this in mind I’ve compiled a list of some great children’s books of mythology from countries and cultures that perhaps don’t always get the spotlight they deserve. A few notes before we dive in: firstly this particular list is aimed at older children, typically between the 8-12 range. Secondly, because it is impossible to showcase every region and culture, this list is meant to serve as a starting point for exploring world mythology, and is not intended to be comprehensive. However, if you have any recommendations for further reading, please do leave them in the comments below, and perhaps we can map out the whole world in myth.
Seasons of Splendour: Tales, Myths and Legends of India by Jaffrey Madhur
From heroic legends of warriors, to the mythological tales of Hindu gods, to the traditional and local folktales, Seasons of Splendour explores the rich mythology of India, through 20 extraordinary stories. Jaffrey, well-known as an actress in India and England, presents the book using the sequence of the Hindu year, and framing each story with a short personal anecdote of Jaffrey’s own experiences with the story as a child. These reminiscences really draw you into the culture and context of the myths before diving you into the fantastical tales of how Vishnu got his elephant head, or how the monkey god Hanuman helped defeat the Demon King Ravan. Along with Jaffrey’s vivid and clear descriptions are Michael Foreman’s beautiful illustrations, which demonstrate the stories’ majesty and even their horror, through careful detail and bold style.
Treasury of Chinese Folk Tales by Shelly Fu and Patrick Yee
Turning further east, we have this collection of seven classic stories from Chinese mythology. The introduction of the book give us an excellent historical look at the time, place, and cultural impact of these stories, before diving into the tales, divided into creation narratives, morality tales, and love stories. The bright and charming illustrations really bring the stories and characters to life, whether it’s Nu Wo, the mother of mankind, or Bai Su-Tzin, the snake that took on human form and falls in love. With its historical information, as well as the pronunciation guide, and bibliography for further reading, this is not just a fun and interesting collection of stories, but a useful tool for educating your child and inspiring to further exploration of this fascinating literature.
Tales of Ancient Egypt by Green Roger Lancelyn
Outside of the European myths, the stories of ancient Egypt are perhaps the most recognisable around the world. However, there is still much to explore and understand about this fascinating culture. Roger Lancelyn Green is famed for his renditions of the Robin Hood and King Arthur legends; in this book he turns to the mythology of ancient Egypt. The book is divided into the tantalising sections of ‘Gods,’ ‘Magic,’ and 'Adventure,’ and includes a range of stories, from the creation of Egypt by the god Ra, to an early version of the Cinderella fairy tale. Rather than an illustrated anthology, like the books we have seen previously, this is presented as a chapter book — however with Green’s superb storytelling, it’s easy to be drawn into this ancient and mystery world.
Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales by Nelson Mandela
We return to the anthology format with his compilation of 32 beloved African stories, as chosen by Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s name certainly lends a prestige to this book, but it’s important not to overlook the incredible work of the authors and illustrators who came together to produce this stunning patchwork of stories. A personal favorite touch in this book is the map at the beginning, indicating where in Africa each of the stories came from, which highlights the diverse and varied cultures of this vast continent. Some stories will have a familiar touches, such as the story of the lion cub Simba, while others, like the tricksters of Zulu folklore, will perhaps be a fresh experience for young readers, but in all cases the vibrancy of Africa’s heritage of storytelling shines through.
Tales Our Abuelitas Told by F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada
Our next book also draws from a wide geographical base. The twelve stories in Tales Our Abuelitas Told reflect the wide-ranging roots of Hispanic culture. Some of the stories have sources in indigenous Latin American cultures, while other have Middle-Eastern and Basque beginnings, and still others show the Spanish influence. The stories are accompanied by illustrations by well-known Latino artists, and presented with chatty informal notes from the authors on the origins of the stories and the decisions made in this retelling of them. This is a wonderful introduction to the tales handed down through generations of eponymous abuelitas.
Between Earth and Sky by Joseph Bruchac
Abenaki poet and author Joseph Bruchac compiles 10 legends associated with places sacred to various Native American tribes. The book is framed by an uncle explaining these stories to his nephew in stanzas of unrhymed poetry. The stories are divided into the seven directions of Native American culture: North, South, East, West, Above, Below, and Within. The book opens with beautiful map detailing the locations of the various tribes and the ten sacred locations, and each story is complimented by Thomas Locker’s breathtaking, ethereal landscape paintings. This book is aimed at somewhat of a younger audience than the previous entries on this list, but the stunning combination of stories and artwork will be sure to appeal to readers of all ages.
Hawaiian Myths of Earth, Sea and Sky by Vivian L. Thompson
Moving to Polynesian mythology, we turn to Vivian L. Thompson’s compilation of 12 myths of Hawaii, specifically those concerning the wonders of the natural world around them. From the creation of the earth, to the origin of the tapa tree, these stories are a celebration of the Hawaiian landscape and the people that inhabit it. It’s particularly fascinating to see the stories tied to specific landmarks still visible today. Thompson’s prose captures the stories in striking simplicity, and the text is accompanied by illustrations from Hawaiian artist Marilyn Kahalewai. While there are marked differences between the mythology of the various island in Polynesia, there is a central core that remains consistent, and this book serves as an excellent starting point for exploration.
Favorite Folktales from Around the World by Jane Yolen
As we mentioned in the introduction, it would be impossible to showcase every region’s mythology and folklore in a single list. There is certainly much more to explore, and so it seemed fitting to include an anthology that draws its stories from all across the globe. Acclaimed author Jane Yolen has compiled this impressively comprehensive book of over 150 folktales, myths and legends, from around the the world. Split into chapters with enticing titles such as ‘Tricksters, Rogues, and Cheats,’ and ‘Death and the World’s End,’ Yolen’s book really embraces the opportunity to present a diverse range of stories. There are tales from Syria, Peru, Haiti, and Estonia, and many more besides, perfect from exploring a whole world of stories and storytelling.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published in November 2017.