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Shapeshifters: Tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses [Hardcover]

Adrian Mitchell , Alan Lee
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

1 Oct 2009

"Behold the great shapeshifter himself, boldly casting poetic spells." - Roger McGough

"Adrian Mitchell makes these tales of human overreaching and natural vengeance sharply up to date. Children will be entranced, but there's plenty for adults too." - Andrew Marr

Bursting into life in the hands of Adrian Mitchell, here are 30 of the brightest, loveliest and most powerful myths ever written - stories of gods such as Jove, Apollo, Juno, Venus and Mercury and of mortals such as Daphne, Narcissus, Adonis, Phaeton and Persephone . Re-created from Ovid's Metamorphoses in stories, ballads and headline news, they sing aloud on the page. Breathtaking artwork by the most acclaimed fantasy illustrator of our time transforms the stories into a living, breathing children's classic to bewitch a new generation raised in a world of special effects.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children's Books (1 Oct 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1845075366
  • ISBN-13: 978-1845075361
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 24.8 x 29.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 309,814 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


With Alan Lee's amazing illustrations and the late Adrian Mitchell's wonderful writing style, this book has all the ingredients of a life-long classic. Considered to have within its pages thirty of the most powerful and delightful myths ever written, this lovely production certainly does them justice. This a treasure of a book.


An exciting addition to the substantial classical library built up by Rosemary Sutcliff (Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus, which are both illustrated by Tolkien artist Alan Lee, and have sold almost 40,000 copies according to the publisher) and Penelope Lively (In Search of a Homeland). The late Mitchell retells the myths that Ovid retold for the Ancient Romans using verse, song,straight prose and Mercury’s despatches from the front line of the gods’ battles. The credits will please fantasy fans – Alan Lee created “The Lord of the Rings” world for film and print – as well as children who enjoy language play, and those who are drawn in by the powerful stories


Within the picture books market, titles with the most chance of success in the current economic climate need to be investment purchases and many of those highlighted have been highlighted for the staying power of either the author/illustrator of the story…or the almost instant classic status, witnessed in Adrian Mitchell and Alan Lee’s Shapeshifters.”


There’s enough about humanity’s dreams and fears in Shapeshifters to last a child for life.


Thirty of the brightest, loveliest and most powerful myths ever written are retold here by the late, great poet and author Adrian Mitchell. Stories of Ancient Rome and its gods, heroes and heroines are re-created from Ovid's Metamorphoses into stories, poems and headline news. With its stunning artwork by illustrator Alan Lee, this title is destined to be a classroom classic and is a perfect accompaniment to project work on myths and legends.

(Literacy Time plus)

The structure and the language of this beautiful book reflect its theme, superbly shifting between the lyrical and the prosaic. Stunning.

(Angels and Urchins)

There's just time to mention an actual classic, Ovid's Metamorphoses, as reimagined by the late, great Adrain Mitchell. 'Shapeshifters' humbles every other entrant on the list with its humanity. Smuggle it into the adults' stockings, too.

(Independent on Sunday)

Tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses might seem inaccessible to today's iPod generation, but children raised on Harry Potter and Twilight take fantasy and myth in their stride. Mitchell's lyrical interpretation and Alan Lee's quite breathtaking illustration bring to life the heroics and tragedies of King Midas, Narcissus, Echo, Persephone and the Minotaur, among others. One for all the family.

(Daily Mail)

"The story was well told because it was quite detailed - not vague, but not too much extra stuff, either. It is written in a fairly grown-up way, and doesn't feel like a children's story… This one tells it straight, and is even quite poetic at times. The pictures are really cool. I loved the Labyrinth. In another one, you can tell what Icarus is thinking just from his face: it's so well drawn. The sea is beautiful too." Thomas Brooke, aged 10.

(Church Times)

"Alan Lee's illustrations are subtly appealing: slighly old fashioned and painterly with a muted greeny-blue palate…It's certainly not a translation or a basic summary, but more of a concise retelling, with some neat touches of characterisation. It would be a useful and easy introduction to Greek and Roman myths." Rachel Boulding, parent.

(Church Times)

Thirty of the most powerful myths are retold. Stories of Ancient Rome and its heroes are re-created into poems and headline news.

(Country Life)

Transforming Ovid's epic Matamorphoses into a book for children sounds like a tall order but the late poet Adrian Mitchell has pulled it off in style. Shapeshifters, with exquisite illustrations by Alan Lee, is a magical collection of stories and poems that brings to life the myths of Persephone, Icarus, King Midas and many more.

(Daily Express)

This collection remains super-accessible throughout. Sometimes in prose, elsewhere in poetry, it retells famous myths from King Midas to Orpheus in the Underworld. Sumptuously illustrated by Alan Lee, it is a book for ever as well as for all ages.


Powerfully illustrated, this is a handsome introduction to some of the best-known stories about the Greek gods and goddesses and their legendary powers of transformation. Adrian Mitchell's vivid verse and prose retellings reflect the humour, pathos and often downright tragedy of each story by capturing the reasons for the shapeshifting and the usually devestating consequences of it.


Older children who like poetry and the ancient world will relish the powerful 'Shapeshifters' with sinister but brilliant illustrationsby Alan Lee. Part poetry, part prose, it tells both familiar stories - Persephone, Orpheus, the Minotaur - and many less well known but just as dramatic.


This book, Adrian Mitchell's last, is deeply felt and highly personal. In its vigour and its dramatic range it is a fitting memorial to a writer who added such a vibrant human note to literature for both children and adults.

(Books for Keeps)

Very good introduction to Greek mythology with stirring fantasy illustrations by Alan Lee.

(Irish Post)

Alan Lee's brilliant illustrations match the tone of the text, showing the transformations taking place. With remarkable fluidity features from each double-page spread flow into the illustrations on the following spread as the page is turned. If it was possible to stretch all the illustrations end to end they would become a huge frieze, each picture transmogrifying into the next Human. Beings are shown in the process of metamorphosing into other life forms, as if the images are moving, without any sense of discontinuity between the different pictures. Delicate colours do not distract from the incisiveness of the drawing - the results being both beautiful and horrific, on occasions. This version of Ovid (not a translation) is an artistic pleasure, repaying close study and repeated reading.

(School Librarian)

Here is a book that charges the imagination, perfect for dipping in and out of and savouring, tale by tale. I have no doubt that this is a book that young (and not so young) readers will cherish for a long time.


A splendid, beautiful book.

(Margaret Meek)

About the Author

ALAN LEE won the Kate Greenaway Medal for his illustrations to Rosemary Sutcliff's Black Ships Before Troy, which was followed by The Wanderings of Odysseus (both Frances Lincoln). In 1998 he won the Best Artist Award at the World Fantasy Awards. He illustrated the Centenary editions of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and, more recently, The Children of Húrin (HarperCollins). He went on to transform his vision of Middle Earth from page to celluloid in Peter Jackson's film trilogy The Lord of the Rings, winning an Oscar in 2004 as part of the Art Direction team on The Return of the King. Alan lives in South Devon.
ADRIAN MITCHELL (1932-2008) made a splash in the 1960s as the first journalist to interview the Beatles and caught the spirit of the time with his anti-war poem 'Tell me lies about Vietnam'. The author of over twenty stage plays including The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he adapted many foreign classics for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. He was the lyricist for Peter Brook's Us and Peter Hall's Animal Farm, and wrote many of the lyrics for Pam Gems' Piaf, as well as television documentaries and novels for adults and children. He gave over a thousand performances of his poems. His last three books were Shapeshifters, Tell Me Lies (Bloodaxe Books) and Umpteen Pockets (Orchard Books). Adrian's death in 2008 was a sad loss to literature, to the theatre and to children everywhere.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By S
This is a really stunning introduction to some of the most famous tales from Ovid's metamorphoses. The Minotaur, King Midas, Arachne, Icharus, Narcissus, Echo, Orpheus, and many more are brought to life by Alan Lee's haunting illustrations, and Adrian Mitchell's beautiful verse and clear concise prose that captures much of the essence of the original work.
As an adult, I loved this book - it was a real feast for the imagination.
As a parent, I would say it is a `PG' rating. It is probably suitable for around 9+, possibly younger depending on the child - I think parents will have to read the book first and make up their own minds. These are dark tales, and the powerful imagery in many of the illustrations reflect this - making some of the illustrations rather nightmarish.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.8 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good! (sexual content advisory) 30 Nov 2012
By Susan - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Ovid for kids, geared at about 5th grade, I'd say. This hardbound book is fairly large, about 10 x 12 x 1-inch thick, with a glossy jacket. It is a compilation of 35 myths from Ovid's Metamorphoses. All 35 stories flow together and are linked, to tell a greater tale. Some are told in rhyme, others in narrative prose. Each one is illustrated. The illustrations are full-spread, covering two pages.

At the end there is a page listing the gods, a VERY brief bio on Ovid, and a page showing how to pronounce the Greek names (helpful, thank you). The pronunciations are formatted to show the stressed syllable in all caps: Danae (DAN-ah-ee), Eurydice (Yew-RI-di-see)

I have mixed feelings about this book, so I will break it down by illustrations, prose, and poetry.

Illustrations: ★★★★
All the illustrations are fine, and some are superb! I especially love the monochromatic depiction of the labyrinth on the island of Crete, where King Minos stowed his wife's abomination, the Minotaur. The artwork feels like water color. The artist (Alan Lee) has a nice touch with shadow and light. Another great scene depicts Icarus falling, feathers coming unglued, expression terrified, horrified...while a real bird soars gracefully on by...

Text prose: ★★★★
Coherent, anecdotal, and flowing. I am not referring to the poems, here, but rather to the retelling of the myths, with commentary about how the characters can be found in the constellations, etc. Here is a snippet from the beautifully illustrated myth Kiss the Mirror, the tale of Narcissus and Echo:

"Soon the whole world discovered that the blind Tiresias, who had been both a man and a woman, always told the truth about the future. And many people came to ask advice, for everybody thinks they want to know the truth, until they hear it."

Poems: ★★★
Some are better than others, but in general the poems lack vivid descriptive imagery. They feel a bit pedantic, and in many cases the cadence is rough. For example, I didn't get too excited about the retelling of Midas. Here is an excerpt from The Golden Touch:

I want to sing about King Midas.
He was a little too much.
I'll tell you all about Midas
and the Golden Touch.

Bacchus said to Midas,
"Tell me, what would please your soul?"
Midas said, "I want the special touch
that turns everything to gold."

Bacchus said, "You've got it."
Midas said, "That's great!"
Then he picked up a broken-down wooden chair
and a battered old tin plate.

The chair was suddenly a golden throne
and the plate was golden too,
and Midas realized that his wish
for the Touch had really come true.

Yes, Midas got the Golden Touch. etc. etc. etc.

!!! Note to parents and teachers: The content frequently references sexual goings-on that might not be suitable for kids, depending on the age. For example, it is clearly stated that King Minos's wife had sex with a bull. Also, as seen above, kids might wonder about "the blind Tiresias, who had been both a man and a woman" (on the other hand, these inclusions are true to the original myths and could serve as a nice discussion starter for diversity and/or sex education).
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Will appeal to adolescents and young adults as well as adults 22 Mar 2010
By Midwest Book Review - Published on
"Shapeshifters: Tales From Ovid's Metamorphoses" is a stunning new retelling of the fabulous tales from Ovid's "Metamorphoses," beautifully bound and illustrated by the award winning Alan Lee, who was awarded an Oscar in 2004 for Art Direction of "The Lord of The Rings," peter Jackson's famous film trilogy. "Shapeshifters" retells in modern prose and poetry some of the most famous of the Metamorphoses tales from Ovid. The spider woman Arachne, Actaeon the hunter become a stag, Midas and the Golden Touch, Theseus and the Minotaur, Orpheus and Eurydice, Jupiter and Io, Baucis and Philemon, the tales of Persephone, Bacchus, and Tiresias, all these mythic tales and more are retold in language both as fresh, ancient, and rich as its original creator could ever wish. "Shapeshifters" is the modern reinterpretation of something like Hawthorne's "Tanglewood Tales," another, older retelling of these wonderful stories. Fortunate is the child who receives such a precious gift and rich is the soil in which its heady visions have been implanted. "Shapeshifters" will appeal to adolescents and young adults as well as adults.
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Work 22 May 2014
By R.G.P. - Published on
Found this book at a local bookstore and although it was bigger than your typical book on mythology, it was definitely worth it. The artwork is simply fantastic, loved how they literally fill up whole pages. Also I found the Greek/Roman myths very interesting to read about. They were not too detailed, but enough to where you knew what was going on, but the artwork definitely made up for it. I would highly recommend this book.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Work of art 19 Jun 2013
By Cynthia - Published on
This is a beautiful book physically and poetically. The author has aptly brought Ovid to young readers, but be aware the story is about an adult's (Ovid's) cosmology with forces of dark and light, perhaps not appropriate for young and sensitive children. Otherwise, I would not hesitate to add this book to my child's library.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I just look at the pretty pictures. 10 Oct 2012
By Ray - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought the book, Shapeshifters: Tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses mainly for the pretty pictures...
because the artist is Alan Lee!
Some of the text may subconsciously leak into my head while I'm admiring the artwork but this can't be avoided and must be expected to occasionally happen, that is the risk I'm willing to take for the sake of Lee's artwork.

It is apparent that Lee has slanted his artwork for younger readers in this book because the characters are somewhat less dark and gruesome than his usual character portrayals.

Nevertheless, the book is chock-full of Lee's wonderful watercolors and delightful line renderings enough to cause an overwhelming temptation to read the text, the very text they could not get me to read in school!
Alas. Already, I fear, some text has leaked in!
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