Using Picture Books to Study Great Literature

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Studying Great Literature has to be one of my most favourite times in home school (along with artist study, A&P, any kind of history…..).  I think because I design our own studies, it gives us lots of freedoms that following a curriculum of any type would remove.  I am able to keep it simple, complex or anywhere in between.  We don’t have to ascribe to what someone else believes the children should know.  I like that.  Maybe I’m a bit of a rebel at heart but this freedom allows us to study literature that ties in neatly with our history studies (the main spine of our whole home school).

At the same time as learning literary terms and familiarizing ourselves with different styles, we are also learning more about the period we are studying; about the people who lived during that time and also about the heart of the person who actually wrote the work.  Great literature stands the test of time for a reason and is very reflective of the period in which it was written.  It tells us, in a way no text-book can, the issues pertinent at the time: the concerns, the questions and the beliefs.   I love the transparency of great historical literature!

I start the children learning history at around 7, beginning with creation.  I suppose the first great book they are exposed to is the Bible.  This happens way before they are 7 though.  Our first ‘study’ into an epic occurs during our Mesopotamia studies with Gilgamesh:

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Of course, at seven I want them to enjoy literature and finish up a study wanting more.  With that in mind it makes sense to use a young person’s version.  We read and reread the above books until the children are familiar with the story line and characters.  We chat about vocabulary but everything is done in a relaxed, fun way.  There is no expectation of mastery, only of enjoyment.  We do copy work and lots of narration.  Oh and we look at the illustrations in the books.  They are not primary evidence, but at this age who cares?  Often (but not always) the illustrators go to a lot of trouble to ensure their illustrations are an accurate portrayal of the time.  I believe there is much to be learnt.  Gilgamesh the King, the Revenge of Ishtar and the Last Quest of Gilgamesh are all excellent books which retell the story of Gilgamesh beautifully.  The illustrations are stunning and have been the inspiration of many activities in our Mesopotamia unit study.

By the time we get to Greece and study Homer the children are ready for some exposure to adult versions of The Odyssey and Iliad.  Again we start with a children’s version:

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I can’t recommend Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus enough.  The language she uses, the similes and metaphors, are fabulous teaching tools.

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At this age I will also bring in some of the original Homer.  Again, we do copy work and narrations but to be honest I let the pictorial language of Homer do most of the teaching for me.   As Homer draws pictures in our minds, we draw them onto paper.  He teaches us how to use wonderful, descriptive language (see here for the children’s description of the cyclops).  By the end of our study the children fully understand many, many literary devices and best of all never forget them.  This is purely because we play with them, in context; we have fun with them in context: they are understood so thoroughly because we are studying in context.

Virgil’s Aeneid, the Roman epic written in response to the same Trojan war mentioned in the Iliad, is the next piece of literature we study after Homer.  It is wonderful to have studied Homer first and also have a good knowledge of Greek and Roman history, prior to opening the pages of Virgil.  I really believe this is the key.  The children simply don’t know they are studying literature traditionally considered out of their league.  They are not exceptionally bright children in any way, but they know from where this story originated and also know where it will ultimately end.  They understand the belief system of the time; its culture and the importance to these cultures of having their own epic hero and epic tale to tell.  Ultimately, they make sense, being studied in the context they were written.  The copy of Virgil we used was Lively’s In Search of a Homeland and the Original Aeneid translated by Robert Fagles:

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It was during a very dangerous pregnancy that we studied the Romans and I don’t believe I did it credit.  I’m not too worried though, as we will revisit the Romans again a few times before the children’s home education is over.

Last year I chose to focus on the children’s writing and it really paid off in terms of the advancement in their literature study.  We started Beowulf in September and were able to take it up a notch.  We used these two books:

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This time I chose a few particular scenes (Beowulf defeating Grendel, for example) and photocopied them from Heaney’s translation.  We then did lots of work pertaining to the literature contained in this chapter.  This meant that the children knew and understood the whole story by reading Morpurgo’s Beowulf but were exposed to the more advanced language with in-depth study using Heaney’s version.  It was during this time that we really saw the fruit of our previous literature studies.   The children were able to tackle kennings with a fair amount of confidence because of their previous knowledge of metaphorical language from Homer.  If you want to read more about our literature study with Beowulf see here for Part one and Part two.

We are currently studying Dante’s Divine Comedy.  It was a little trickier to get hold of a translation for children (some adult themes) and proved impossible to find ones with pictures.  This is the one we ended up using:


This book has, inevitably, moved our studies up a further gear and once again I am thankful for the time we have spent in history, for Dante’s writing is peppered with references to many people (and mythical creatures and beliefs) from the past.  Knowing intimately most of those mentioned has made for easier understanding of a sometimes hard text, and much to my astonishment the children are really enjoying me reading it to them.  We are only in the reading stages (and only half way through) so I don’t know if they will cope with the activities I have planned to go with it.  It doesn’t really matter.  If they do not, I will return to Dante another day, when they are a little older.

As you can see I use the picture books to familiarise the children with the story and characters, so when I come to read the traditional version they already know the people who are mentioned and so don’t have to sort them out in their minds or try to figure the story out at the same time as attempting to understand sometimes tricky language.  I’m sure some would say it’s a diluted way to study, but I really think not.  The children are still being exposed to more traditional, adult translations but only after the storylines and characterisations are understood.  My children, without exception, love our literature studies.  And to be honest, that is the most important thing to me!