By Alli Brydon
When Lonely Planet Kids approached me last year to write a children’s book of myths and legends from cultures across the world, I was equal parts excited and intimidated. I’ve loved mythology since I was a kid myself, but I also knew the publisher wanted to include a selection of myths that are not as well-read as the Greek and Norse ones we all know so well. Lonely Planet has a crackerjack team of researchers who they can tap into for expert information, and they sent me some great initial research to begin with. But I was still faced with the enormous and important task of crafting 21 engaging narratives for children, while also remaining true to the originals.
Here is a behind-the-scenes look at some of the most difficult ones:
“El Alicanto,” from Chile
The research for this tale drew up not much more than what you’d find on a Wikipedia stub. El Alicanto is a giant mythical bird from Chile with golden wings, jeweled eyes, and a tail that gives off sparks when it flies. It eats gold and silver to survive and is said to bring fortune to those who happen to see it. But it is very hard to spot: if the bird notices it’s being followed by someone who is not worthy of its riches, it will shrink itself and hide in a small crack, never to be found. But if El Alicanto senses that a person has good intentions and a pure heart, it will actually lead them to gold and silver.
It’s an amazing mythical creature, but I had to ask myself: how do I create a narrative out of this snippet of information? I decided to craft this tale as a story-within-a-story, featuring the wily boy Martín who is caught “borrowing” money from his parents by his abuela, who then sits him down and lectures his about El Alicanto. Through the story, we learn more about Martín and Abuela, and their close relationship.
“Uluru,” from Australia
The giant rock that rises from the middle of the stark desert in the Australian Outback—Uluru—was to be the subject of this story. The formation of Uluru is rife with spiritual meaning and tradition for the indigenous people of Australia, and has been passed down orally for generations. With a story so important to a culture and a people, I had a huge responsibility to deliver it well. But there are many disparate stories surrounding Uluru, and it was tough to weave them all into a cohesive narrative. In addition, the grooves, caves, and boulders on and surrounding Uluru, were said to be formed by ancient people, with some of them actually being ancestors who died in those spaces.
With these complex, distinct plotlines and otherworldly transformations, how was I going to make the story of Uluru accessible for a young audience? I have to be honest: there were a lot of great, detailed notes from my editor and several revisions from me to put all the pieces into place and carve this story into what it needed to be. I focused on the most prominent parts of Uluru the rock, which corresponded with research that had the strongest links to the original oral traditions.
“Sedna, Mother of the Sea,” from the Arctic.
This tale, as it originally stands, is pretty horrifying. Sedna is a young woman and the daughter of a poor man; the two of them live in squalor in the freezing North. The daughter is beautiful, and the poor man has the opportunity to marry her off to a rich hunter who passes through. The hunter promises to give Sedna a life of comfort and luxury, but what really happens is he turns into an evil bird the moment the pair returns to his home. Sedna’s father hears her cries and sails out to save her. But when the bird stalks the pair on their way back, the father literally sacrifices his daughter to save himself from certain death.
So, I thought: how can I even place a story like this into a book for 9 – 12 year olds? After much thought and deliberation, I decided they could handle it! If Sedna could exact great revenge against her father and the bird-husband at the end of the story—and she does!—the payoff would be enough to justify the abuse.
Myths and legends are stories to delight us, as well as cautionary tales. They mirror the real world and show us how to move through it with great care. This is why these stories have lasted generations. It was an honor and pleasure to deliver them to an audience on the cusp of young adulthood.
Myths and Legends of the World, written by Alli Brydon and illustrated by Julia Iredale, is out now from Lonely Planet Kids and is suitable for readers aged 9 – 12.
Alli Brydon is a freelance children’s book author, editor, and lifelong New Yorker who recently moved to the south of England with her family. She edited the #1 New York Times bestselling picture book Last Week Tonight with John Oliver presents A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, and has books published or forthcoming with Scholastic, Quarto, National Geographic Kids, and more. Her latest book, Myths and Legends of the World, is out now with Lonely Planet Kids. Please visit www.allibrydon.com to say “hi” and learn more about her work.