Retelling Myths For Children
By Elizabeth Chayne
Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth Chayne, All Rights Reserved
Myth retellings for kids are
probably the easiest type of juvenile fiction to write, mostly because
the process of writing is so like that of nonfiction. The characters and
plots have all already been taken care of by someone else, which saves
you a lot of time and sleepless nights. However, most myths are abstract
enough to provide food for your imagination; since they were thought up
by people long ago who mostly wanted to explain scientific phenomena or
to teach a lesson, there's very little scenery or psychology involved.
Usually a myth contains the bare facts and nothing more.
So, how do you start the
retelling of a myth or legend or folk tale? The first step is research.
Go online or to the library to find information on the story. You
probably won't be getting a lot of material in one place: a paragraph
here and there is the best you can hope for. Because many magazines
require bibliographies for myth retellings, it's important to note down
the titles of the books you find, the websites you visit, or the names
of the people you talk to.
Once you've got all the
material at your fingertips, it's time to plan out your storyline.
Different books may have different sequences of the events concerned, or
new characters. Keep in mind that as it's a myth, there's no "right" or
"wrong" as there might be in a normal nonfiction piece, so if one source
lists a character that isn't found anywhere else, you can still feel
free to use that character if you want to. Also, because there may be
many different versions of a character's name, now is the time to choose
the one you prefer. Briefly mention alternate versions at the start of
the piece (for example, "Ilong, sometimes spelled Ylong or Yilong"), and
then stick with one version to avoid confusing readers.
Pick out an order from the
various happenings mentioned in your sources: what happened first? How
did that lead to the next thing? Eliminate the parts you feel are
unsuitable for kids or irrelevant to the big picture (if the lengthy
introduction of a goddess' seven sisters doesn't have anything to do
with the story, don't put it in). You can mix beginnings and endings
from different books and websites; just remember to double-check that
the storyline makes sense and that the characters don't do anything
out-of-character. A person known for being wild and irresponsible
doesn't suddenly become cautious and sensible overnight.
Now that you've gotten your
characters and plot down, you can boot up your laptop or get out your
pen and paper: the actual writing begins here.
There are several ways to
write a myth retelling, but one thing you have to keep in mind is that
it's a retelling, not freestyle creative writing. That means you
can't take the story off at a tangent on a sudden whim. A myth about the
creation of the planets shouldn't end up as a dissection of the inner
turmoil in a god's brain, because that would make it an original and not
a retold piece.
The first, and possibly most
humorous way to retell a myth, is to modernize the characters. Having an
ancient Greek hero say, "Hey, dude, I had this race in my chariot" may
not seem exactly logical, but it can help to capture the attention of
your juvenile audience. This also makes it easy to insert puns or
situations that your readers can relate to (such as Icarus saying
"Whatever" when his father tells him not to fly too close to the sun).
Another, probably the most
"normal" way to present a myth, is to expand. Add description to the
scenery, make the characters more 3D by giving them emotions, or imagine
a couple of scenes to connect the holes in a myth. As an author, you've
likely heard "Show, don't tell" a million times; here, you're taking
someone else's "tell" and breathing "show" into it. Consider telling the
myth in the first person if that helps to bring you closer to the people
One other method many
writers like using is simply to turn the whole thing into a nonfiction
piece, perhaps by talking about holidays, traditions, or monuments
(totem poles, statues, etc.) that have come about because of the myth in
question. Generally in these cases, it's a good idea to include
photographs of the objects that you write about, even if the magazine
has its own photographers and illustrators. The myth part isn't as
important here -- a simple paragraph or two that sums up the basics
should be enough. It's the accuracy of the nonfiction part of the
article that's the main focus, so make sure that the sources you use are
up-to-date and written by someone trustworthy: there is nothing more
embarrassing than telling kids they can go visit a house that was torn
down years ago! A few websites and kid-friendly books should also be
recommended, so that your readers have places to find out more if they
Obviously, there's no need
to choose one style to stick with, or one culture, for that matter, as
long as you do your homework and combine it with your imagination.
Since multicultural is the
current name of the game, most children's magazines such as Cricket
and Calliope accept myth retellings and, in fact, welcome
them. Check theme lists and websites to see which countries/cultures
will be featured in a given issue.
If you're the kind of writer
who focuses more on character than plot, or someone who likes to
discover new things about other cultures, myth retelling is probably
going to be an enjoyable occupation for you. Myth retellings are easy to
work with, can be profitable, and can also help to quench your curiosity
concerning other cultures and countries. All you need is a little
research time and a bit of logic to set you up.
So, how about a trip to the
library right now?