Mary Pope Osborne, Tales from the Odyssey, Volume One: The One-Eyed Giant / The Land of the Dead [audio, read by James Simmons] (Harper Children's Audio, 2002)

I'm all for getting classics to a wider audience. Of course, my inner literary pretension screams at the thought of it, words like "bowdlerize" and "Cliffs Notes" swimming through my head. Then I remember that I practically grew up on the Great Illustrated Classics series and began my own love of old literature through them.

And that's sort of what Tales from the Odyssey is: The Odyssey for kids; an introduction to classic literature through simplification. The tapes begin with author Mary Pope Osborne (The Magic Tree House series) giving us certain Odyssey basics like the cause of the Trojan War. Then she introduces her "good friend and favorite Shakespearean actor," James Simmons (York in Branagh's Henry V), who proceeds to perform these unabridged adaptations with a flair for the dramatic that does these tales well.

The first tale, "The One-Eyed Giant," is, of course, the tale of the Cyclops. Odysseus and his crew find themselves in the land of the one-eyed giants, specifically drawn to the cave of one Polyphemus by his great stores of milk and cheese. Polyphemus returns and proves to be a rather intimidating host, eating several of Odysseus' men over the next few days. They finally escape, however, by putting out Polyphemus' eye with a hot, sharp stick (ouch!) and strapping themselves to the bellies of his goats. Polyphemus screams to his father Poseidon to curse their journey.

The second story, "The Land of the Dead," continues from that point. The crew land at the island of Aeolus, the Wind God, who gives them a fine sailing wind (along with an assortment of storm winds in a bag, just in case). Unfortunately, the crew, jealous of their captain's loot, opens the bag and the resulting hurricane blows them back to Aeolus. After a more difficult journey, they land at the island of Circe, who tells Odysseus he can only get home by going to the Land of the Dead and asking the blind prophet, Tiresias. Odysseus then travels to the Land of the Dead and gets a shocking surprise during his stay.

Osborne's simple-yet-poetic prose is action-oriented like its source, making it exciting listening. This, combined with Simmons' skill at characterization (plus, no doubt, his stage training), makes for entertainment that still retains the "literary" feel. I could easily see this being a favorite of any child (or adult, for that matter) who enjoys a good, rousing tale -- and you can say you're into the classics! It could also be a good choice for that tedious morning commute.

(The Tales from the Odyssey series is also available separately in book form with illustrations by Troy Howell.)

[Craig Clarke]

Here is Mary Pope Osborne's Web site, and you can learn more about Homer's Odyssey (and other Greek myths) at Mythweb.