How can Greek mythology and history books spark a love of reading in beginners?
Updated: Jul 22
Some books are just irresistible for young readers. Even the most reluctant learners can find a book that will hook them. The question is, how can you find that book?
I am so lucky to have enthusiastic students who keep me up to date on what they love reading, and I want to share what I have learnt with you, including a bonus strategy to make it work if they will not pick up a book.
The list I am about to show you is perfect for the following groups of students:
- Beginner readers in the 7-12 age bracket who are starting to read independently
- Students preparing the verbal reasoning and English sections of the 11+ test and wanting to improve vocabulary and comprehension, but not yet ready for classical novels
- Students at the early stages of working towards their ISEB exams
- ESL learners
- Students who want to learn about all things Classics, regardless of whether they are doing Latin and Greek in their school or not
You are not alone looking for fun and educational books. Take a look at our Latin and Greek Facebook group to see what other parents are saying!
But before we tuck into the magical list, let me answer this question:
What do young readers enjoy the most?
You will not be surprised with this answer: readers in ages 7 to 11 enjoy reading what they choose – and more specifically, probably the opposite of what you have selected for them! The key is to make a variety of books available to them and let them discover them by themselves.
You will not be lying if you warn them that books with a classical inspiration contain plenty of material that is nowadays not considered the most age-appropriate for children. However, you do not need to tell them it is, in fact, material that will appear - and they will need to learn! - In other areas in their curriculum.
I have even heard many parents bringing the books home with the following caveats:
“That might be too grown-up for you.”
“That one there might be too scary.”
“You can read that when you are a bit older.”
“Those I will leave there because they have more pictures than words.”
This can ignite their curiosity. They are in the sweet spot moving from emergent and early readers into fluent readers, and they will equally enjoy reading a picture book on their own as much as getting a middle-grade novel read aloud to them. In addition, most of the readers this age are thrilled to carry around a chapter book, and this is the perfect moment to feed their curiosity and boost their confidence as readers. They only need to find something they actually want to read.
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Do you still think your learner is a no-no? Try audiobooks first
I will include in the list some books that are readily available in Audible. Language comprehension, vocabulary and expression are most effectively learnt by listening – it is in our nature! Therefore, if you want to get a reluctant reader into stories, you can start with listening. The best part of this is that you do not even need a quiet place or time to do this. A car or plane journey can be the perfect place – and be a boredom buster for the whole family.
NB: I have arranged my list of reading suggestions with my very own categories and added a few recommendations for activities to do during or after reading them. Where a book falls into more than one category, as many do, I just put it in the one where I think fits best.
Camouflage reading books
I have a pile of books in my living room that I have named the camouflage books. I deploy these every time I want to start building the connection between reading and enjoyment. That is the beauty of these books: vocabulary gets learnt, but it does not look like work at all!
Here are some of my favourites:
This book is great fun, and it will mesmerise everyone who starts leafing through it. The topics are presented through beautiful charts and drawings, and they create a series of fascinating mazes, a bit like Greek and Roman myths themselves! There is also a handy glossary at the back to complement the learning experience.
This book is not specifically about Greek mythology but rather a journey across the mythology in different cultures across time and place. It includes sections on the worlds of the following cultures: Native American, Irish, Aztec, Yanomami, Yoruba, Greek, Norse, Slavic, Egyptian, Hindu, Japanese and Polynesian.
The maps are superb attention grabbers, and it is almost impossible not to read all the exciting information written to explain the mysterious illustrations.
The fun illustrations and quirky designs make this book very appealing, and you can easily use them for “a word a day” activities. The Greeks and Romans take most of the protagonism. However, there are still fascinating sections on the Egyptians, Phoenicians and Minoans, making it a solid bet to get some interest in Antiquity.
Although marketed for ages 7-9, this is truly an encyclopedia in disguise. But here is the trick: it has the feel and interest of a picture book because every page sets the tone and atmosphere with a carefully calculated set of images and colour palette. As a result, this is an essential feel-good read for all ages. The language is very accessible, and the focus is on enjoying superb storytelling.
This camouflage book is so perfect that it would hide happily among collections of stories, encyclopedic compilations and adult illustrated books. National Geographic has recently targeted a growing audience of young readers interested in mythology, and this is one of the resulting gems.
The illustrations alone are great conversation starters. The text, written by Donna Jo Napoli, a Linguistics professor, is full of oral echoes and grabs the attention as the best storytellers do. This volume can also be used as a book of reference, as it includes the most relevant characters and stories of Greek mythology. To name just a few, it features Gaia, Orion, Helen, Jason and, of course, the main Olympians.
2. Grown-up picture books
Not all picture books are for babies, and in fact, at 42, I am still an avid reader of picture books! I do not think it is controversial to say that these books are great reading for both adults and young readers. Here is a selection of books where pictures are crucial, but there is still great reading to go along with it:
This book is simply a work of art, and only a look at the cover will make the most reluctant reader want to tuck into it. Under an appearance of simplicity, the book introduces plenty of key vocabulary about the Romans and the study of History. It also comes with a summary about the town of Pompeii. Readers will enjoy studying with it once they have been through the thrills of the explosion and escape from the volcano.
Despite its 9-12 age rating, this simple version by the award-winning children’s author Gillian Cross is a delight from beginning to end. It will boost literary vocabulary comprehension in readers of all ages.
Again, this book offers an excellent opportunity to delve into a complex and often very adult topic in an immersive and lively way. You can get a pretty good idea of what I mean by checking the preview in Amazon books.
In a similar way to the Odyssey and Iliad above, this beautifully illustrated version of some of the most famous Greek myths opens the door to engage with the stories and interpret them in a personal way. The tales included the Minotaur and Theseus, Persephone, Ariadna, Midas and the golden touch, Echo and Narcissus, and Ariadna.
3. Early readers:
There is much to be said about this collection, but I will keep it short: easy to read stories, top-class sense of humour, fun illustrations and incredibly portable. And if that was not enough, add that it includes some of the most often ignored Roman myths.
Here is a list of the different stories from the publisher: Shot in the Dark, Romulus & Remus, City of Dreams, Burning the books, Zeus Conquers Titans, Wooden Horse, Theseus & Minotaur, Phaeton & Sun Chariot, Perseus & Gorgon Medusa, Persephone & Pomegranate Seeds, Adventures of Odysseus, Jason & Golden Fleece, Hermes Tricks the Gods, Twelve labours of Heracles, Daedalus and Icarus, Athena & Olive Tree.
These colour crunchies by Orchard are the best collection for learners to venture reading on their own. Once your child starts moving up the colour bands or reading scheme, this is an excellent opportunity to let them read something different yet still familiar.
These are some of the titles included in the collection:
Arachne, The Spider Woman
The Secret of Pandora’s Box
Perseus and the Monstruous Medusa
Odysseus and the Wooden Horse
Arion the Dolphin Boy
And many more!
4. Chapter books and middle-grade novels
We want young readers to be hooked by the stories. Therefore, I have included books at different levels. You have two options here: you can either choose one that is at their independent reading level or choose one which is more complex, and you read together.
Here are my top reading recommendations:
My students highly recommend this. I am currently reading Beast Keeper, and it is a good laugh. And this book is set apart by something that may not be apparent at first sight: it is laid out in dyslexia-friendly font and spacing. This would be a great way to introduce dyslexic students to longer readers in a format that allows them to read more fluently and enjoy a chapter book without the visual problems that printed books bring.
Here are some of the titles in the collection:
By the way, this collection is also available in a very accessible French version, so students taking French as MFL at an advanced level or speakers of French as a second language may want to consider this as a special treat!
I recommend buying the set straight away because it will definitely be read – perhaps even more than once. The age range is 9-11 (grade level 4 to 6), but I recommend starting early. They are also available in Audible and Kindle, so you have plenty of options to get started.
Here are the titles included, but again, I recommend saving money and buying the full collection straight away.
The Thieves of Ostia The Secrets of Vesuvius The Pirates of Pompeii The Assassins of Rome The Dolphins of Laurentum The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina The Enemies of Jupiter The Gladiators from Capua The Colossus of Rhodes The Fugitive from Corinth
For those who speak Spanish or are taking Spanish MFL, the series is also available in audio, ebook and paper format under the name Misterios Romanos.
My students are raving about this series. I am just getting started with it, but I can see how this 8-12 year old rated chapter book has captured their imagination.
The students at MOA (Mount Olympus Academy) are fresh and relatable, and the familiarity of the vocabulary makes it very accessible for those new to studying the Greeks and Romans. Unusually, the book tackles issues of gender with humour and a touch of irreverence towards literary tradition. It is a fun response to Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and the long list of action chapter books where male characters dominate the plot.
A look at some of the titles in the collection should give you a good preview of the tone:
Persephone the Phony (This one is graphic novel, and a great starting point for more hesitant readers)
If you are looking to get started with Audible, as I mentioned above, this is a great option. To give you an idea, listening to it will take you around 4 hours, which makes it perfect for a road or plane trip. It is the obvious option if you are on your way to enjoying the archaeology in London!
These are fun, packed with factual knowledge and a great vocabulary booster, and will also be helpful for KS2 students interested in History. They are also available on Kindle, which can be a blessing if your learner has specific needs for font sizes or any glare issues.
Here are some titles – but the list goes on:
Tiger, Tiger is already a modern classic and a great gateway book for learners preparing to jump from chapter books and YA to classical literature. The story is sweet and captivating and a way to look at gladiatorial games from a different perspective than the one often seen in mainstream media.
In a similar line to Goddess Girls, this series presents contemporary versions of the myths that help talk about more complex topics without the pressure of being realistic. They are great fun and a hit with readers ages 9-13. And a big bonus is that you can read them on Kindle Unlimited, which can save you plenty of money and trips to the library.
Again, here the variety of some of the titles will give you an excellent indication of the tone intended:
These books need little presentation, but I could not leave the section for young teenagers without telling you this: your reader will love them. Even if they are initially not curious, just watching one of the movies should get them interested. They are an instant hit in most households. Give them a try!
Here are some of the titles:
5. Share what you truly love
More than a category, this is just an opportunity to encourage you to share the books that shaped you. They may not be ideal for your reader, but your enthusiasm will shine through, and you can bring them a bit of the first excitement you felt when becoming an independent reader.
I have read this 1977 classic more times than I can count when I was a child. They had it in my local library – in Catalan, and I found it fascinating. Funnily enough, I did not own my very own copy until 2014, when a colleague in the GDST trust gave me one she had bought second hand without much thought. With my childhood library miles away, I always keep my new English version in the living room, and my children love hearing how I have read this book thousands of times.
It is a good idea to have a Greek mythology dictionary around the house. Here is why: it gives a visual reminder that there are several versions for every myth, and, most importantly, it links the stories to the authors and people behind them. I have a worn Spanish copy of Pierre’s Grimal Diccionario de Mitologia Griega y Romana, but you can find dictionaries in English too. For example, Penguin has a very affordable and concise Classical Mythology Dictionary version.
Students are sure to love these stories and want to work around them. So what can you do to support them?
First, you can get them to use them as a model and write their own story. Fiction writing can be fun, and the Greeks and Romans provide a universe to explore. A fantastic tool to guide them is Caroline Lawrence’s How to Write a Great History. They get to learn from their favourite author in a fun and relaxed way. They can then share their work online or even publish it. Finally, you can join the Latin and Greek Facebook group if you are looking for an audience!
Other fun ways to reflect on the stories and keep using the vocabulary are turning the stories into films, songs, and drawings. But do not feel restricted: you can even cook the food people eat in them or create some of the clothes featured.
Would you like to get started but do not know where? Here you can download the list of Roman and Greek gods to support your learner as they start going through the stories in the books I have recommended.