As homeschoolers we are reading our way through ancient history this year, following Susan Weiss Bauer’s Story of the World as our textbook and then selecting stacks of great read-alouds and gorgeous picture books to immerse ourselves in the art, the mythology, and the folklore of each ancient culture. It’s always our favorite time of the day to go through these rich cultural stories together. They provide a feast for the eyes and fodder for the imagination for both kids and adults alike. We all know that one of the easiest ways to engage students in history is to fan their interest through good stories. Here are just a few of our favorite ancient mythology and folktale books for kids, chosen for their ability to ignite curiosity in ancient history and for their spellbinding quality of storytelling.
Ancient Near East
Gilgamesh the King (The Gilgamesh Trilogy) by Ludmila Zeman
A three-part picture book series featuring the half-god, half-man Sumerian ruler, Gilgamesh. He begins as a lonely and cruel tyrant until he learns the meaning of friendship and how to be a human from Enkidu. The story continues in The Revenge of Ishtar and The Last Quest of Gilgamesh, where there is plenty of monster-slaying and quests to “live forever,” making a deeply satisfying reading experience that is not to be missed.
Ancient Egypt and Africa
Ancient Tales of Egypt by Roger Lancelyn Green
This unassuming volume of ancient Egyptian tales packs a punch. With only a few black and white pictures to hold the attention of young readers, it manages to bridge the gap of time and cultural difference with the power of its language and storytelling. The book contains three parts: Tales of the Gods, in which we are introduced to Amen-Ra, Isis, Osiris, and others; Tales of Magic, where we read about the land of the dead, magicians and cursed books; and Tales of Adventure, where the author has included stories like the ancient Egyptian Cinderella.
The Winged Cat: A Tale of Ancient Egypt by Deborah Nourse Lattimore
Crack open this picture book and travel to the Egyptian mythological underworld. The artwork here offers a feast for the eyes as the author unfolds an ancient tale of a young servant girl who must read magical hieroglyphs in order to open the 12 gates of the Netherworld. Each page offers a richly layered experience. My kids spent a lot of time exploring the patterns in the artwork, which feels deeply authentic to the style of ancient Egyptian art.
Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales by Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela selected 32 of Africa’s oldest stories, along with a couple of new ones, in this landmark volume. We meet a Kenyan lion named Simba, a scheming hyena, a seven-headed snake, and a trickster from Zulu folklore. Included are several creation myths, morality tales, and other ancient stories originally told in African oral cultures long ago, for example, from the San and the Khoi. Retold from the original languages – Nguni, Karanga, Xhosa and others – this volume holds a treasury of Ancient African tales for generations of children to enjoy.
The Ch’i-lin Purse: A Collection of Ancient Chinese Stories by Linda Fang and Jeanne M. Lee
This book brought nine well-known stories in China to English-speaking audiences for the first time. Sourced from classic Chinese operas, legends and novels, the stories feature unusual characters such as a Miracle Doctor who is able to cure every disease save one, a young woman raised as a boy, and a carp-fish spirit who becomes a human. Each story has one illustration rendered with great attention to period detail, though I wish there were more and that they were done in color.
The Magical Monkey King: Mischief in Heaven by Ji-li Jiang and Youshan Tang
The legend of the Monkey King is classic fare for children who love to hear adventure stories of mischief and cunning. This trickster-hero was born from a rock, is smart and brave, and somehow always manages to win no matter how badly the odds are stacked against him. The world of the Monkey King is a magical (if irreverent) one. This collection of tales is an excellent way to introduce Ancient Chinese mythology to children.
Classic Tales from India: How Ganesh Got His Elephant Head and Other Stories by Vatsala Sperling, Harish Johari, Pieter Weltevrede, Nona Weltevrede, and Sandeep Johari
This collection of India’s classic tales of its gods and goddesses is brimming with material. The volume contains seven ancient stories told in detail, such as tales of Krishna, Ram, Shiva, and Parvati. Every tale has abundant illustrations on every page and is prefaced with information about the historical, cultural, or religious context of each story. Every story also ends with a note to teachers and parents providing some analysis and comprehension of its moral implications. Quite a packed volume for immersing yourself in the ancient mythology of India.
Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad by Rosemary Sutcliff
There is just no substitute for this classic retelling of The Iliad, one of the oldest works of Western literature. It continues to introduce and entice young readers to the dramatic world of Greek mythology, to the 10-year war that began with the abduction of Helen of Troy, and to stories of heroic characters like Hector, Ajax, Achilles and Odysseus. Pair it with the author’s companion volume, The Wanderings of Odysseus: The Story of the Odyssey, and the kids will be happily literate in one of the greatest epics of all time.
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths By Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
The drawings are so lovingly presented and the stories so well told in this picture book that it has quickly become a favorite in our household. I find it absolutely essential reading because it is by itself very rewarding, but it also provides a foundation of knowledge for understanding the abundant classical allusions found in western literature up until modern times. My daughter fell in love with stories of Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite, and the other gods of Olympus with this picture book.
Native American Stories by Joseph Bruchac and John Kahionhes Fadden
These are mesmerizing myths from the native cultures of North America. The volume includes creation stories, tales about fire, earth, water, wind and weather. There are some beautiful stories about plants and animals, but for even more, see the author’s companion books, Native American Animal Stories and Native Plant Stories.
For more folktale recommendations for kids and to see an important discussion of how to approach folktales in their proper context, see 13 Folktales from Around the World for Young Readers.