Jane Yolen, Wings,
illustrated by Dennis Nolan,
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991)

The legends of Greece and Rome aren't necessarily the best grist for the mill of young children's imaginations.

Even a casual reader of the ancient stories of gods and heroes must be overwhelmed by the themes which dominate classical mythology. War. Jealousy. Rape. Deceit. Even the heroes of the tales often stoop to lying, stealing and betraying those around them.

Jane Yolen has taken elements of Greek mythology and created something extremely suitable for younger readers. In Wings, she successfully combines the tragic tale of Daedalus and Icarus with pieces of the hero Theseus' quest.

At the center of Yolen's story is Daedalus, a nobleman, philosopher and inventor from Athens. His own pride and ambitions proved to be his downfall, however, and he is eventually banished from his home. He soon makes his way to Crete, where he is welcomed eagerly by King Minos, who is well aware of Daedalus' abilities.

Among the inventor's accomplishments under the patronage of Minos is the labyrinth, an intricate maze designed to contain the monstrous Minotaur. However, it is in his own young son Icarus that Daedalus takes the most pride. Still, moved by the plight of Athenian nobleman Theseus, Daedalus aids him in his quest to defeat the Minotaur, for which he and his son Icarus are thrown into a tower prison.

There, Daedalus hits upon his greatest scheme yet -- using the fallen feathers of the many birds around him to devise wings for his and Icarus' escape.

Although Yolen's version of the tale is very different from its classical antecedent, she has managed to capture the flavor of the action, as well as the personalities involved, without watering them down so much that they lose any relevance to mythology. Her narrative is concise but colorful, and her characters seem more real than the larger-than-life versions which stride through Homer, Ovid or Virgil. And, even as great deeds take place, Yolen leaves the decisions and their results firmly at the feet of the mortals, not the gods who watch over them in nearly every panel.

For, throughout the tale, the gods and goddesses of Greece look down to witness the unfolding of mortal events. They are visible to us, the readers, but not to the characters themselves, and are seen watching from within the clouds above. They react emotionally as events occur, but never take a direct hand to interfere.

For this story, Yolen has been well-paired with artist Dennis Nolan, whose work is colorful and evocative. His full-page illustrations move the action along to its eventual conclusion without ever interfering with the story or reinterpreting events to conflict with Yolen's version. He has a fine hand for capturing emotion in the faces of his subjects, particularly those of the watching gods.

Anyone who would like to step back into the world of classical mythology without delving too deeply into the messy machinations of the gods could do much worse than Wings -- and, for young readers in particular, would be hard-pressed to do better.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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