How books about myths and legends can introduce children to other cultures

Published on: 14 August 2023

Author-illustrator Thiago de Moraes discusses why myths and legends are so important for children to read and listen to.

Author-illustrator Thiago de Moraes and the cover of Old Gods, New TricksAuthor-illustrator Thiago de Moraes and the cover of Old Gods, New Tricks

Travelling the world through stories

Myths and legends are the stories we tell about ourselves: how we came to be, what we care about, the ways in which we behave, the ideas and places that are important to us. Either religious or secular, myths are fundamental to our sense of self, and that is why reading (or listening to) myths from different cultures is a fantastic way to get a bit closer to people and places which might not be that familiar to us.

We won’t learn much about the geography of Central America from the stories of the twins Hunapu and Xbalanque, but we do get a wonderful glimpse of the Mayan world. Everything, from the narrative and characters to the rhythm of the story, draws us close to the sense of humour, mischief and ingenuity of a whole people.

This closeness, the feeling that we are suddenly getting to know a stranger we have just met, is present in most myths, which have often existed as oral stories for much longer than they have in written form. The nature of oral storytelling, its foundation on memory and performance, naturally leads to myriad versions of the same story. That is a marvellous thing, since everyone that has told a particular story has added a little bit of themselves to it. Every time I tell a myth to a group of children I find myself doing it too, sometimes including a small detail that wasn’t there before, at others lengthening a moment the audience might be enjoying, or finding a new meaning by speaking a phrase or word out loud, which I hadn’t previously noticed when reading it on the page.

Illustration: Emily RowlandIllustration: Emily Rowland

Stories that have endured from the very beginning

Being inspired by myths in our own storytelling also allows us to present different cultures in ways that are informal, unexpected and exciting. Reading the myths of Sedna, the sea goddess, we find ourselves immersed in the icy, sometimes harsh world of the Inuit in a way that a list of facts about Arctic fishing would never be able to replicate.

None of this is a surprise. These are stories that have captivated millions of people for thousands of years and continue to do so, both in traditional and more contemporary formats.

Many books have brought inspiration from myths into new times and places. Recent examples include the Who Let the Gods Out series by Maz Evans, Louie Stowell’s Loki series and Davina Tijani and Adam Douglas-Bagley’s Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka. They all bring some of the strength and magic of legend closer to today’s readers in different and exciting formats.

In my book Old Gods New Tricks, a mythology-obsessed girl called Trixie dos Santos gets a band of trickster gods from different pantheons together to retrieve the electricity which has gone missing from the world. Books are where Trixie gets all her love and knowledge of myth and legend from. Among (many) other things, I wanted her character to be an example of not only how we can travel to new worlds and cultures through a love of myth, but also of how we can see our world and lives differently. There are wonders all around us, we just sometimes forget how to look at them.

To tell new stories using ancient myths is to gently guide readers towards doors that lead into other times, places and peoples. If they find a door interesting, they can step through it via other books and stories, and spend more time in these wonderful worlds.

Old Gods New Tricks by Thiago de Moraes is out now.

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