Greek Heroes Come Alive for Kids

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SOFIA ZARAMBOUKA has only one recipe for writing and illustrating children's books: ``Have fun.'' ``If you don't have fun, children understand that,'' says the author who lives in Athens.

Specializing in classical themes, Ms. Zarambouka recently published the ``Iliad'' and the ``Odyssey'' (in Greek) for children, which prompted several Greek scholars of Homer to take note.

The people of Greece enjoy the classical literature ``very much. It's close to their culture,'' said the vivacious author during a reception here at Wheelock College where her ``Iliad'' and ``Odyssey'' paintings were recently on view.

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One of the best known children's book authors in Greece, Zarambouka has written and illustrated 32 books that have an estimated circulation of 500,000. Her works have been translated into Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Japanese, Hungarian, Spanish, and English. (Only one, ``Irene-Peace,'' was published in the United States in 1979.)

Without having had any formal childhood education training, Zarambouka is able to ``touch a four-year-old and a 14-year-old,'' says Mary Iatridis, early childhood professor at Wheelock College, who helped organize the exhibition. ``While her texts are pretty faithful to history, her pictures give the imagination and creativity,'' she adds.

``She's a fine artist ... very original,'' adds Despina Croussouloudis, assistant librarian in the New York Public Library's central children's room, which has some of Zarambouka's books.

Although the ```Iliad' has a lot of war,'' Zarambouka says she likes to promote peace and understanding as underlying themes in her books. ``Most of my books have these ideas without starting [with] them,'' she says.

One series she wrote for children was based on the works of Aristophanes, a Greek writer of satirical comic dramas (circa 450-322 BC). ``People were interested in how I would do them for children,'' because of some inappropriate subject matter and language, Zarambouka explains. The often-humorous stories capture the same spirit of the orignial plays. In her version of Aristophanes's ``Lysistrata,'' for example, women revolt against war by saying to the men: ``No love until the war stops.... They won't hug their husbands until the war stops,'' says Zarambouka. When the war does stop, ``there is a lot of cheek-to-cheek dancing!'' she says.

Zarambouka studied at several universities in the US - primarily American University in Washington, ``but I will not tell you when!'' she says impishly. She visits the United States periodically - ``I do all my research at the Library of Congress.'' She has been recognized by the Greek Academy, the International Board on Books for Young Children, the University of Padua in Italy, and at the Leipzig Fair in Germany. ``I do not think very much about awards,'' she says. What she does think about is ``having fun.''

Although the author has no children of her own, she says she knows her books are popular among children and adults because people are buying them. In general, Zarambouka says, ``I'm not around children.'' (Then whispering, she jovially adds: ``Sometimes I even find them annoying.'')

Often, Zarambouka says, she uses friends as portraits for her books. Some are well-known. For the goddess Athena, for example, Zarambouka painted a prominent theater director and friend she describes as ``very strict and logical.'' What does the theater director think of it? ``She loves it,'' says Zarambouka.

Marina Kasdaglis, who works for the Greek consulate in Boston, comments that her five-year-old son ``can identify with the characters [in Zarambouka's books] ....'' After traveling to Greece in the summers to see his grandparents, he can identify the landscape colors and memories.

``He relates to the heroes the way American kids relate to superman,'' she says, adding that right now, he likes ``Hercules - the strong man who defeats all the monsters.''

Next on Zarambouka's agenda is a book about a sheep who travels around the Mediterranean from the Roman times to 11th-century Byzantium.

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