Saturday, October 10, 2009

How many versions of the Odyssey could there be?

And which is the "right" one for me?

We've gone through about 7 versions so far!  Not all from start to finish, of course... lots of hopping around as library books are due, one wants to read ahead, etc.  Here are a couple of reviews:

The Children's Homer by Padraic Colum is a good, solid retelling of both the Illiad (the Trojan War) and the Odyssey (wanderings of Odysseus).  Publisher says it's for ages 9-12, but I think most 9 year-olds would stumble over the King James style English.  But, it's pretty thorough, doesn't leave out any of the adventures, and has a handful of black and white illustrations throughout.  Good for middle grades to read independently.

I find Mary Pope Osborne's (of Magic Tree House fame) version, Tales from the Odyssey, the most... interesting.  Broken into three volumes, the books are highly readable by the younger set - probably those that are used to reading her Magic Tree House series.  However, just because the language is relaxed and there are fewer words per page does not change the content.  The cyclops Polyphemus still bashes the brains out of the skulls of Odysseus' men, etc.  So while you may be able to hand these books over to your second grader, you may not want to.  The Odyssey has some scary stuff in it.  I like it better as a read-aloud, and I find these books on the "light" side for our read-aloud tastes.  I would recommend it for older elementary students that are still having reading difficulty.

So far my favorite version has been right in the middle.  The Adventures of Odysseus by Hugh Lupton, Daniel Morden and Christina Balit is an excellent picture book version that still has a complete text.

This book is just under 100 pages, and is broken into 16 stories including a prologue (Trojan War story) and epilogue.  Each page of text is surrounded by gorgeous watercolor, gouache and gold ink illustrations that really bring the story to life.  I find the narration to be beautifully lyrical (and this story was a poem, right?), neither too antiquated nor simplistic.

"The next morning, when dawn took her golden throne, we said our last farewells to Circe.  She gave us a wind to fill our sail.  When the wind failed us, when the sail sagged, we knew we were approaching the enchanted regions of the Sirens."

I've renewed this book from the library twice already!  Almost time to turn it in for good, so I think this weekend we will read the last few stories and put Odysseus to rest for a bit.  But if we ever get the hankering again, this book is available in full text, for free, on Google Books.

Highly recommended as read aloud for all ages, and independent reader for ages 9 & up.

Life of Fred

I've been hearing about this one for a while, but since you have to buy it from the publisher I've never been able to get my hands on a copy... until now!  There are 8 books in the series, and I only happen to have the first two... but I love these books!

Dr. Stanley Schmidt has found a narrative way to teach math in Life of Fred.  They're engaging, they're funny, and they really, really explain math concepts in a real-life way.  The stories are about a boy named Fred (who also happens to be a math professor) and all his daily adventures.  It's very hard to describe without making it sound ridiculous, so please look at the samples here.

What I love most about these books is that the lessons are really short.  Dr. Schmidt has done a wonderful job of breaking the concepts down into bite-sized pieces, and breaking up the text with illustrations without making the pages too busy.   After every five chapters there is a Bridge, which is a set of 10 review questions.  You must get 9 out of the 10 questions correct before moving on to the next chapter.  The nice thing is, though, that there are 5 sets of bridge questions, so if the students botches the first set, they can go back, correct their work, and begin again on the second set.  So they have 5 tries at getting over the bridge!

There are 8 books in the series, ranging from pre-algebra to calculus.  The first two books in the series are Fractions then Decimals & Percents.  The subsequent books also have a teaching guide (Fred's Home Companion) to go along with them which includes a daily lesson schedule, all the solutions, plus more practice problems.  My understanding is that you probably wouldn't need to have Fred's Home Companion for the advanced books in order to gain understanding of the concepts, but if you choose Life of Fred as your main math program and need to show substantial amounts of scheduled work for high school credit, you might want the extra problems and schedules.

Life of Fred would also make a very, very good review program for test prep and college placement.  I wish I had had it before taking the math placement exam when I returned to college after an 18-year absence!  Here's a word problem to illustrate:

Susan forgot all her higher math skills!  When she decided to go back to school she had to take a math placement test.  Because she did poorly (she hadn't taken math in almost 20 years!) she had to take a college review math class that cost $450 and did not even give her a math credit!  The entire Life of Fred series (with Fred's Home Companion for 6 of the 8 books - 14 books in all) costs $302 (free shipping!).  Which is the better value?
Answer:  $302 < $450 (and much more fun) 

Highly recommended for 6th grade and up.