Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
Author: Sally Pomme Clayton
Illustrator: Virginia Lee
Published originally in Great Britain in 2009 by Frances Lincoln Limited, in agreement with Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), Persephone is written as a straightforward children’s tale that presents the Greek story of how the seasons came to be. For all that the story is named for Persephone, however, the focus is largely on the perspective of Her mother, Demeter, though it emits entirely the founding of the Eleusinian mysteries.
The illustrations are particularly gorgeous, which isn’t a surprise considering they’re done by Virginia Lee, a woman who has previously worked as a sculptor on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies making set piece architectural details. It was lovely to see ancient Greek hairstyles depicted, and the backgrounds were as lush as a mural, with soft, flowing lines used even in “scary” moments such as the appearance of Hades.
There are five issues, however, that keep this from being a retelling I’ll move to own and revisit again. In no particular order, these are:
1. Persephone is not referred to by her first name, Kore, at any point. Because of this, we do not so much see the growth of Her into a powerful goddess in Her own right. Instead, She remains a passive, naïve, powerless figure which exists to be possessed by others and is uneducated in the laws and customs of the gods. Because She is unimportant apart from being an object to possess, we are not even told in the ending of the story how She feels about returning to the underworld each year.
2. Hekate is stripped from the story, replaced instead with a nameless nymph who attempts to stand in the way of the Lord of the Dead. Was this liminal goddess too scary for the author? Or was the intention to present the underworld as a wholly unsavory place with no redeeming qualities or inhabitants?
3. Persephone is presented as being ignorant of what it means to eat the food of the dead. This crops up a good bit in retellings so it’s not all that surprising. What is surprising is that while Zeus and Hermes are presented as being initially ignorant regarding what happened to Persephone, Hermes watches Persephone eat the pomegranate seeds and doesn’t say a word. Are we to believe this clever god is ignorant, as well?
4. The relationships between the gods have been stripped away, apart from Demeter being the mother of Persephone. Zeus is no longer regarded as Persephone’s father, but simply as “Father Zeus”, a sort of general deific title. He certainly is no longer the brother of Hades or Demeter. Perhaps this was to avoid awkward questions from children, but it can also be evidence of issue number five, which is —
5. The worship of the gods depicted in the story is referenced as being a thing of the past, particularly in the “About the Story” in the back, a part of which reads “The Persephone myth is no longer part of religious life in Greece,” an assumption which dismisses the work of the people of Greece to restore the worship of their native gods. Both the author and the illustrator are white women living in England, so there is more than a touch of bias present in the work.
The book is not without merit, especially if you simply want to appreciate the gorgeous artwork, but altogether it isn’t what I would want my child’s first presentation of this sacred story to be. Say what you will about modern retellings of our stories, but I much prefer adaptations such as Lore: Olympus which grant Persephone agency and do not present Her as being an object to be possessed.
[Reviewed by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]