By Elizabeth Wroten
Nonfiction Review: Of Gods and Goddesses by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli
On 14, Dec 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: As a young child, I remember reading books about mythology from all over the world and feeling a very strong connection to each of the mythical beings, even though I never recognized myself in the illustrations for the texts I read. In Of Gods and Goddesses: Deities of Ancient Rome, master Italian painter Elena Tommasi Ferroni and I reimagined sixteen ancient Roman deities to reflect the multicultural society of today.
Before my decade long obsession with Ancient Egypt there was Ancient Greece and Rome. I remember a friend of mine giving me a copy of some Usborne book about Ancient Greece and I was off and running from there exploring the ancient world and voraciously reading all the illustrated books about Greek and Roman mythology that I could get my hands on. I wrote reports in my free time I was so excited by this stuff. I would get out of my seat at free reading time to share things with my teacher that I read. I pored over books at home, wrote my own, and drew pictures. I even made a plaster of paris and cardboard Trojan horse. The art aside, this was unlike anything I had ever done before. I was fascinated and I don’t think I was or am alone in that fascination. From my time in the classroom and the library in elementary, middle and high school I have seen kids fall in love with Ancient Rome over and over.
Looking back as an adult I see some pieces to that interest that I was completely unaware of at the time. The first is that, as white girl, I saw myself reflected in the homogenous and white-washed Greek and Roman world presented in children’s books. I didn’t feel alienated or unseen by the books I was consuming. I now know, from further reading I have done in just the past year or two, that the ancient world was far from WASP-y. It feels like a palm-to-forehead kind of idea now, but it just hadn’t occurred to me because of the media I was consuming around it and because of the prevailing narrative we see in education, particularly primary education. With her new book Dr. Tamara Pizzoli has produced something incredible to correct this. She has intentionally included pictures of the gods and goddesses with dark skin and natural hair. A glimpse of the cover lets you know you are in for a treat and that this is not Ancient Rome as usually seen by children.
Which brings me, briefly, to the illustrations. They are stunning. Each one is frame-able (and you can buy prints of them on her website!) they are so beautiful. Each god or goddess is depicted with some symbols of their essence. There are a variety of skin tones, hair types, and clothes (no one is naked, btw, for those of you who need to worry about that). Ferroni illustrated Fatou and Kora, another of Pizzoli’s beautiful books. She has outdone herself here with these portraits. The paper they were originally done on gives them a texture that makes you want to stroke the pages. The color palette is muted and earthy and each text page features a tiled pattern down the left side of the page. It all feels very cohesive and polished. It makes most of the other mythology books I’ve seen seem garish and absurd. This feels like putting high art in a kid’s hands.
The second part of my obsession I have seen upon reflection is that I was struggling with reading at the time. I remember carrying around books and checking them out and even buying a few that I was just not ready to sit down and read through. I read as a kid, but I hit some kind of plateau in forth or fifth grade and didn’t break free from it until middle school. This is why I have such a sympathy for those reluctant readers. And it wasn’t about not having found what interested me. I had a number of interests, but the books that were considered “appropriate” or “at my level” were just too hard. I would stare at the pages and not be able to make heads or tails of the text. I loved flipping through those Eyewitness books, but I didn’t even know where to being reading (as an adult I can see exactly what I should have been doing reading them, but at that time it was too overwhelming). Of Gods and Goddesses is perfect for this type of student. It’s perfect for any student, but if you have those reluctant readers that are dying to get into this topic, you need this book on your shelves. It’s so accessible. Pizzoli has distilled the pantheon down and shared the most relevant information about these gods and goddesses. It gives just enough information to show kids what role these deities played in Ancient Rome while giving them a push to explore more when they’re ready. I know I would have memorized this book as a kid and been able to list off the information whenever I wanted to talk about it with someone.
I know people love to think that picture books are only for young kids, but they are wrong for so many reasons. I cannot recommend this book enough if you serve upper elementary and middle school populations. Waldorf schools in particular come to mind for me here as an educator. They do studies of the Ancient Greek and Roman (and maybe Norse and Egyptian) worlds. Especially the deities. Plus they emphasize beautiful art. Here is a perfect vessel for that study. Ditch your D’Aulaires for this pantheon. They have plenty of problematic content to begin with and this is so much better on all fronts. We all have students who love mythology and the Ancient World, make sure you have this book on your shelves for them.
If you are on Instagram and are reading this before December 21, 2018 hop over to my Instagram account for a chance to win a copy of the book.
Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of the book by the author to use in a giveaway on Instagram.
Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.