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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 concerned.

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 want to.

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?