By Annette Hinkle
It’s one of those recurring themes throughout history — the most beautiful women in the world are always to blame when trouble comes a calling.
It’s true in war, it’s true in love …and it’s especially true in mythology.
It’s certainly true in the case of Helen, the femme fatale blamed for launching the Trojan War which pitted her husband King Menelaus against her lover Paris.
The beautiful daughter of Zeus and Leda is the star of “Hit The Road, Helen!” the newest installment in Sag Harbor author Kate McMullan’s Myth-O-Mania series for children. This is the ninth offering in the series which retells the stories behind the prominent characters in Greek mythology and McMullan will be at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor this Saturday to read from the book.
“I just love the myths. I have D’Aulaires’ book of Greek myths, the classic book which is handwritten and illustrated,” says McMullan who read the stories with her own daughter when she was young. “Stephen King said, ‘Write your dreams or write your nightmares.’ I think the myths have both. To have wings or be invisible, that’s the dream. But there are a lot of nightmares in involved too.”
Understanding that it can be a challenge to capture kids’ imaginations when it comes to the classics — those allegorical tales we’re all supposed to have read in our formative years so we can recall the details in comparative literature classes further down the road — McMullan writes the tales with a twist.
The Myth-O-Mania books are geared toward grades three to five and offer a tongue-in-cheek look at the characters in Greek mythology. Persephone is here, as is Hercules, Pandora and Eros. But these stories are updated — all the gods use cell phones, Hades has every cable channel in the Underworld so he can keep an eye on what’s going on “up top” and the characters speak in ways any 21st century pre-teen would understand.
Though McMullan has found a way to rework the old stories into a format that makes them accessible and fun for younger readers, the details remain intact — proving that when it comes to tales of morality, everything old is new again.
And in Greek mythology, McMullan often finds the women aren’t really to blame after all. Generally, it’s the fault of those pesky gods.
“The Greek gods are very naughty – they’re very human and I think that’s why they’ve lasted all this time,” says McMullan. “These gods have huge flaws. They teach lessons, like you can’t be too proud or you’ll have a downfall, or if your fate is to do something, you can’t run from it.”
“But they’re not always moralistic. They have a different system of values and are a little more fun,” she adds. “For example, Zeus is a womanizer and Hera is angry and jealous. They all have these huge faults and these powers as well.”
In designing the Myth-O-Mania series, McMullan realized she needed to find the a voice to act as the guide throughout the books. She found her man in Hades, Ruler of the Underworld.
“I came up with the idea of Hades as narrator because he’s Zeus’ older brother,” says McMullan. “Wouldn’t you hate it if your little brother was Ruler of the Universe?”
“Hades’ voice is really clear to me,” adds McMullan. “He’s doesn’t suffer fools gladly and there are always fools around. He takes an acerbic view of what’s going on and wishes the gods wouldn’t meddle with humans. He debunks the myths as they’re told – but in the process tells the story.”
It also turns out that Hades is not an oft featured character in Greek mythology nor is he depicted in art — that’s because the Greeks didn’t want to tempt fate by opening the Underworld. Which, for McMullan, makes him an ideal narrator.
“I like his voice very much. I’m lucky because finding a voice is a challenge,” she adds. “You can’t demand that you get it, it either comes or it doesn’t.”
While the books have found a loyal audience, McMullan notes the Myth-O-Mania series was first published by Hyperion beginning in 2003 when there was less interest among kids in Greek mythology. After eight books, Hyperion let the series go out of print.
But then the Percy Jackson books and movies, which are also based on mythology, became popular and McMullan found she had a new audience. Capstone Publishing has picked up the Myth-O-Mania series and printed “Hit The Road, Helen!” the ninth installment.
This time, McMullan feels her timing is right — particularly with the new Common Core standards in education which stress wider world connections in learning.
“I didn’t hit it right the first time around. But Capstone, my new publisher was smart, because it’s a good ride right now with the curriculum,” says McMullan. “Teachers love them because their students are so in love with them.”
“I really am telling the myths,” she adds. “They get the characters and a pronunciation guide which teachers like. Even though I’m telling the stories tongue in cheek through Hades, I hope they’ll go on to read the more serious myths.”
This Saturday, September 28, 2013 at 11 a.m., McMullan will be at Canio’s Books (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor) to read from “Hit The Road, Helen!” She hopes a nice selection of young readers turns out for the event.