Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ancient India, Hinduism, and Buddhism (Meet the Ancient World 10)

Our homeschool study of Ancient India was a revelation and a delight for all of us. I knew relatively little about the material and enjoyed my first encounter with The Ramayana and the legends of Ganesh every bit as much as my kids. Well, maybe not as much as much animal-loving daughter, who fell hard for the elephant-headed god and the magical monkey Hanuman, among many other figures from Hindu mythology. (That's her recreating the monkey bridge to Lanka; plesiosaurs, however, do not figure into the original tale.)

There are lots of wonderful books to introduce your children to the culture and history of Ancient India. Living in New York City, we were able to combine our study with multiple outings to Little India in Jackson Heights, Queens, including during the festival of Diwali, as well as with trip to the South Asia galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rubin Museum of Art.

The vivid characters of Hindu mythology lend themselves well to children's exploration through play. My daughter found a lovely little Ganesh figurine in Little India, and played extensively with a set of drop-dead-gorgeous pop-up Hindu prayer altars available in book form. The whimsical folks of the Unemployed Philosophers Guild sell Ganesh, Shiva, and Buddha puppets. We talked quite a bit about how revered these figures are to those who believe in them, to underscore a message of cultural respect; but then, I've never considered it disrespectful for my kids to play gently with their grandmother's nativity scene at Christmastime.


Ganesh, the steadfast child of Shiva and Parvati who was fated swap his human head for one of an elephant, is widely beloved by children, and stories of his life are a great way to begin your study of Hindu mythology. Elephant Prince: The Story of Ganesh, is a stunningly beautiful introduction and highly recommended. Belgin K. Wedman's illustrations are breath-taking, and Amy Novesky tells the tale charmingly. Uma Krishnaswami's The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha has simple line drawings for illustrations, but it covers so many episodes from the elephant-headed god's life that it too is highly recommended for any child who becomes captivated by this Hindu deity. How Ganesh Got His Elephant Head by Hanish Johari and Vatsala Sperling, part of a series of classic Indian stories for children (discussed further below), is another fine choice.

Anna Milbourne's Stories from India, published by Usborne, covers a lot of ground in one compact volume. You'll find folktales, stories of Hindu deities, and short sections from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Don't expect a lot of depth here, but the tales are told clearly and illustrated pleasingly. The Elephant-Headed God and Other Hindu Tales by Debjani Chatterjee is another solid collection.

A great series published by Vermont's Bear Cub Books will enable you to explore individual Hindu deities in greater depth. Titles include The Magical Adventures of Krishna: How a Mischief Maker Saved the World, How Parvati Won the Heart of Shiva, and Ganga: The River That Flows from Heaven to Earth.

Another volume in this series, Hanuman's Journey to the Medicine Mountain, portrays one of the episodes in the great Indian epic The Ramayana. Most children will be entranced by this epic tale, although young children who are extra sensitive to violence may find parts of it frightening. Excellent versions for children include Jessica Souhami, Rama and the Demon King: An Ancient Tale from India and Verma Jatinder and Nilesh Mistry's lovely and magical The Story of Divaali.

While you're studying the Ramayana, you'll want to see Nini Paley's extraordinary animated film, Sita Sings the Blues, an inspired feminist interweaving of the tale of the Hindu epic with episodes from Paley's own life. I can't recommend it strongly enough, but do advise that there is some cartoony violence in the film and a curse word or two, which will likely sail over your young children's heads.


Several well-crafted children's books will introduce your kids to the life story of Gautama Siddhartha, the prince who left behind a life of luxury (and a wife and newborn child) to find and share spiritual enlightenment.

Our favorite of these is out of print at this writing, but a new edition is slated to appear on April 1, 2011. Jonathan Landlaw's Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha features graceful illustrations by Janet Brooke and a lyrical presentation of the Buddha's life tale.

Other good choices include Jeanne M. Lee, I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told, Buddha by the prolific Demi, and an out-of-print but reasonably available volume entitled The Golden Deer by Margaret Hodges.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ancient Rome (Meet the Ancient World 8)

Ancient Rome: Oh, dear.

I could blame Miss Klemp, my 7th grade Latin teacher. I could blame Rome itself, with its fondness for blood and order and its dreary history of military conquest and bureaucracy-building. I've never been able to find much to engage me in a culture that found sport in gruesome gladiatorial spectacles and achievement in efficient tax administration.

So sorry, I've got nothing for you. Back when we did this unit, in the summer of 2009, we learned about roads and built model bridges. I found some general children's books on Ancient Rome but (no doubt thanks to my lack of enthusiasm), they bored the children to death; I tried a few books on Pompeii but realized quickly they had lurid descriptions of volcano-charred corpses.

We'll be returning to Ancient Rome, of course, when we cycle around for our second trip through this history, beginning next fall. So if you can dispel my prejudice and/or offer some great resources, please post in the comments section.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ancient Greece (Meet the Ancient World 7)

Introducing my kids to Ancient Greece was one of the highlights of our whole study of the ancient world. To sit, snuggled together with eager children, reading about Theseus and the Minotaur, or Odysseus and the Cyclops? This is the sort of thing one dreams of when one begins homeschooling. And rightly so.

This material captivated them. My kids spent a great many hours playing Greek gods and goddesses -- some of them in the gorgeous galleries of the Metropolitan Museum (that's my daughter, as Demeter), some of them at a big rock (Mount Olympus!) in our neighborhood park. I was never ever to track down interesting store-bought toys to accompany our study of Ancient Greece -- hello? has no one ever thought to make Greek mythology figurines? -- but my guys readily transformed their vintage 1970s Fisher-Price Little People into the major figures of the Pantheon.


There is such a wealth of fantastic material for children about Ancient Greece that you can linger for weeks and weeks on this unit, getting in many marvelous hours of reading together on the couch.

If for some mysterious reason you read only one book, let it be the elegantly written and beautifully illustrated D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. First published in 1962 by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire, it is an excellent overview of Greek mythology, covering all of the major gods and goddesses and many key minor figures as well. It's on my short list of Books to Be Sure to Read Aloud Many Times throughout Nini and Desmond's childhood, along with other classics like Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows.

The drawings have a childlike quality that appeals to the very young; Hermes, for instance, is introduced beside a full-page illustration, posterior view, of Apollo's cows. The text is dense, but consistently engaging.

Because D'Aulaire's is so weighty in addition to being so engaging, you might want to start with something lighter to pique your child's interest in the Greeks. We greatly enjoyed Usborne Greek Myths for Young Children, a compact miniature volume with appealing, whimsical illustrations. Your kids won't meet the full complement of Olympian gods here, but will encounter Icarus, Pegasus, Pandora, Theseus and the Minotaur, and other legendary figures, as well as a brief recounting of the Odyssey. Aliki's The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus is another good introductory option.

Warwick Hutton's picture-book versions of Greek tales are also quite accessible to young kids, though they seem to be out of print (we found them at the library). In addition to Perseus, Theseus and the Minotaur, and Persephone, he has created a nice version of The Trojan Horse, the one episode from the Iliad that you may want to cover at this age.

Out of the many versions of the Odyssey available for reading to the younger set, we preferred Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden's The Adventures of Odysseus. While not avoiding the story's more gruesome episodes, this version doesn't linger on them the way Mary Pope Osborne does in her multi-volume Tales from the Odyssey. Dorling Kindersley has also produced a nice children's version: Adrian Mitchell's The Odyssey, which intersperses maps and other background information with condensed versions of the tales.

Playing Catch-Up

My kids are now well into the second half of first grade, and the study of ancient history we began in the spring of their pre-k year and finished during their kindergarten fall is, well, pretty old stuff to them now.

It's been long enough ago now that I can't pretend to finish writing up my curriculum with anything like the thoroughness I brought to the first installments (especially since the computer on which I kept many of my notes has since crashed and died). But I'm going to try at least to post lists of the books we found most useful in our studies of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient India, and Ancient China.

More than a year later, my twins don't remember many of the details of what we learned. But they have held onto two crucial things: a basic feel for each of these civilizations, and a sense that learning about them is interesting and fun. Next fall, when they begin second grade, I plan to begin our study of world history again; I'm looking forward to seeing how their new knowledge builds on the foundation we laid with this undertaking.