Since 1945, the Children’s Book Council of Australia has been promoting quality children’s literature in this country. It does so through activities, outreach, and through a venerable program of literary awards. These awards are celebrated every year in Children’s Book Week, and they’re an important event in the children’s literature calendar. Children, teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators and publishers eagerly await the announcements. The endorsement of the Children’s Book Council means a lot–it’s a stamp of approval for children’s literature that the judges regard as beautifully produced, well written and illustrated, and relevant to children’s lives. There are several categories, by age group and genre, and then there is the announcement of the overall winner, the Book of the Year.
Normally Children’s Book Week is held in August (towards the end of the Australian winter–a reliable sign that spring is coming…), but this year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is held in October. This week, in fact.
In a year which demonstrated how difficult the world can be, the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards have recognised thought-provoking and uplifting stories that allow young people to take on all challenges
I must say, that although it has been a difficult year, it has also been a year in which the value of storytelling–of writing and reading, of producing and receiving stories–has been well and truly recognised. Even though in Australia the artistic community has been hit very hard by the impacts of the COVID-19 shutdowns (and our governments could be doing rather more to support creative industries in general), it’s very clear how much we rely on storytelling–to lift our spirits, free our minds, open up the world to our imaginations, and help us think through all sorts of issues. There’s something about immersing oneself in a book that is better for the brain that the jittery rush of doom-scrolling and constant panic about the state of the world.
I’ve been watching in admiration as writers and illustrators adjust their usual whirlwind of book tours and classroom visits to promote their works, and encourage the joy of stories–through zoom events, online conferences, twitterfests and more.
And so it’s wonderful to see the Children’s Book Council of Australia also adjust–one of Australia’s older literary establishments finding a way to celebrate storytelling in these strange times. The theme for Book Week this year is Curious Creatures, Wild Minds, and you can click on the link to see the program for the week.
And in terms of the Book of the Year, here are the announcements, made by well-known Australians: enjoy!
It was Anna Mik, PhD student at the University of Warsaw, who introduced me to the work of Polish artist Jan Bajtlik, whose magnificent book of mazes presents the myths of ancient Greece as a set of intriguing mazes. Everyone in the myths is in a maze of a different kind–Odysseus, Heracles, Atalanta, Zeus–they’re all there. Maze as story, story as maze, life as maze. Here, Anna discusses the role of the maze, the thread, and life in the time of COVID as a labyrinth that we are all finding our ways through–Elizabeth Hale
A journey through a labyrinth can be a dreadful experience. It might have been a true horror for Theseus walking through Dedalus’s maze with the anticipation of meeting the Minotaur just around the corner. For the Minotaur, on the other side, the labyrinth was a prison, where he waited for the human offerings and ultimately was killed by the mythical hero. For Ariadne who gave Theseus a thread leading him towards the safe exit after killing her brother, the labyrinth was a mysterious and confusing space, where love and fear were accumulated and made her feel conflicted.
The mythical maze was never only an architectural wonder. It was also a metaphor of danger, coming of age, uncertainty, a struggle between death and life. It survived the centuries in stories, visual depictions and artistic visions. And even though it is so familiar to us, this motif does not cease to surprise us to this day. Even if we live in an era of postmodernism, often perceived as a maze itself.
There are multiple examples of famous labyrinths in popular culture. Thousands of years after the Minotaur (allegedly) was slain, in the 1986 film Labyrinth, 16-year-old Sarah travels through the labyrinth. Trapped inside the world of her fantasies, she walks thorough paths representing her troubling adolescence. (she meets a lot of weird creatures on her way, paths change their courses, sometimes they are even upside-down) In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the titled protagonist has to face the horror of a maze in the Triwizard Tournament.
“The towering hedges cast black shadows across the path, and, whether because they were so tall and thick, or because they had been enchanted, they sound of the surrounding crowd was silenced the moment they entered the maze. Harry felt almost as though he was underwater again.” p. 539
In both of these works, mazes are not ‘stable’ and easy to pass through – they constantly change and surprise heroes and heroines with new turns and creatures living in it. They play with characters’ imagination, push their boundries, and distort cognitive perception. Thus, it rises up the question – is there anything good about the labyrinth at all?
Bajtlik’s solution: Greek Myths and Mazes
One Polish artist gives hope that there is something more to the ancient maze than horror and anxiety. Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes (English translation, Walker Studio, 2019) was published in Poland in 2018 under a slightly different title: Nić Ariadny. Mity i labirynty [Ariadne’s Thread: Myths and Labyrinths]. It is a large format book in which double-page spreads present different stories from Greek myth: each one a different labyrinth leading a reader through various myths, locations, and ancient Greek phenomena. In such a manner, Greek Myths and Mazes is a great example of an interactive book for children, encouraged by the author to get through the maze, which has been marked with an entrance and an exit, and follow stories along the way. The pages are also an artistic showcase, as Bajtlik has conveyed complex and multi-layer stories through equally rich illustrations.
However, what seems to be the most imperative, is the implication that each element of the ancient world is a labyrinth in itself, with all the unexpected turns, monsters waiting just around the corner, and the big uncertainty – will the hero or the heroine find their way out and fulfil their journey? The story of Odysseus would be a great example of such a labyrinth, through which the hero travels for 10 years, uncertain of his fate and gods’ favours. He does not know what waits ahead of him, he meets dead ends and turns leading him to monsters, he loses his crew on the way. Nonetheless, he thrives, bearing in his heart and mind the image of the exit – his beloved home, Ithaca.
Jan Bajtlik works with the labyrinth as a cognitive tool that allows the child to read the myth not linearly, as in a ‘classic’ text. The path leads the reader in all different ways, allowing them to immerse in the story. They might get the wrong turn, walk through the danger, or take a dangerous route from which it will no longer be possible to withdraw (as in Hephaestus’ forge). The mythical labyrinth may also surprise the traveller with a beautiful view, a funny picture or, finally, a happy ending (as on Aeaea, Circe’s island)
All things considered, a feature that would seem the most vital is book’s metaphorical aspect. Being lost in a maze, just like being lost in a myth, perfectly reflects the shape of human existence, its impermanence, complexity, horror, and beauty. The book can affect the reader, not only a child, in an unusual way, especially during the 2020 lockdown. Isolation, danger, uncertainty, fear of the unknown – all these elements connect the world of ancient labyrinth and COVID-19 reality. If the ancient mazes have been able to gives any kind of hope, just like Jan Bajtlik, they would certainly give us a way out. Then again, only if Ariadne was there to bestow upon us an invaluable thread. This may lead us to finding in ourselves Ariadne, ready to help us find a solution to the most dreadful situation. Being an Ariadne would mean being hopeful, despite the hopeless reality.
What’s in a title? From Ariadne’s Thread to Greek Myths and Mazes
As I have mentioned earlier, the English version of Bajtlik’s book was published in 2019 under a slightly different title from its Polish original. It made me wonder – does this change make any difference in book’s reception? After all, it seems that “Ariadne’s Thread”puts a certain kind of emphasis on the role of the heroine in Theseus’ success. Without the thread provided by Minos’ daughter, the young hero would probably not get out of the maze. What is more, the thread marks the path through a labyrinth thanks to which a hero does not make a mistake of taking the same wrong turn twice. Within the narrative structure of Bajtlik’s story, the thread plays a vital role as well. Thus, it is a shame that neither Ariadne nor her thread appear in the English title.
Nonetheless, Bajtlik’s Greek and Myths were translated also to Spanish, Catalan, French, German – in all of these editions “Ariadne’s thread” has been maintained in the title on the cover. Let’s read it as a good sign. There is a great hope for the Ariadne’s Thread to get us through these uncertain times. After all, nowadays, it is accurate to consider reality being just another maze.
We’re all working hard, in the Our Mythical Childhood project–and none more so than the team from Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. Lisa Maurice and Ayelet Peer have been developing the Our Mythical Childhood Education survey. It’s a gorgeous site, where they survey a host of educational resources in the teaching of Classical mythology. From textbooks to AV material, worksheets, blogs, exam material, websites, quizzes, lesson plans, syllabi, and the always intriguing category ‘Other,’ this database provides useful and fascinating information for teachers, students, parents, and scholars.
There are currently 100+ items in the survey, and I encourage you to look around.
Isn’t it attractive! I encourage you to look around!
Before you do (or after you have done!), I also encourage you to read Lisa Maurice’s thoughts about the OME project–I’ve interviewed her below…
Children’s and Young Adults’ Education Inspired by Classical Antiquity–interview with Lisa Maurice.
Lisa Maurice is Associate Professor in Classical Studies at Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. She’s published a host of scholarly work, including The Teacher in Ancient Rome (Lexington, 2013), and Screening Divinity (Edinburgh University Press, June 2019),. She’s also the editor of three volumes in the Brill Metaforms series on the reception of the ancient world in popular culture: The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature: Heroes and Eagles (Brill, 2015); Rewriting the Ancient World: Greeks, Romans, Jews and Christians in Modern Popular Fiction (Brill, 2017), and The Reception of Ancient Virtues and Vices in Modern Popular Culture (Brill, 2017). Shortly, her new edited collection Our Mythical Education, will be published through the Our Mythical Childhood project.
Thanks for taking my questions, Lisa! I’d like to start by asking you what inspired you to develope Our Mythical Education (OME)?
As you know, OME is part of the wider project, OMC, which aims at developing a pioneering approach to the reception of Classical Antiquity in children’s and young adults’ contemporary culture. Myth is often the first meeting point that a child has with the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome and it is found in a huge variety of educational systems worldwide.
Most studies or research into how the ancient world is taught focus almost exclusively on the study of the classical languages, which are often thought of as ‘real classics’. Yet the powerful and gripping stories of classical mythology, which continue to fascinate in myriad cultures and over varied societies, have been frequently been used in fact as vehicles through which to teach or improve other skills, such as literacy, or put across ideological messages. I go into this further, and many examples of it can be seen, in my forthcoming edited book, Our Mythical Education,which is (very excitingly!) now in the print layout stage at Warsaw University Press, and should be published in the coming months. So, despite the fact that that little attention has really been paid to it in educational research, the belief that classical myth has played a fundamental role in so many societies and school systems was the initial inspiration behind the overall OME project. Likewise, the desire to collect, examine and share the amazing materials I was sure existed, and were being used in a range of creative and effective ways, was a main impetus behind the creation of the database.
What do you hope that OME will achieve?
I hope that it will demonstrate just how central Classical myth has been in education, in so many places, and also how versatile a tool it is educationally speaking. The tales continue to captivate children and youth (and adults!), but they are far more than just ‘stories’, and the complexity of ideas and emotions buried within the narratives have such potential; they are like a fuel source that can still be tapped in so many ways. I hope that OME will help this potential be realised and will lead to the dissemination and expansion of existing resources. And particularly, now that so many people are looking for online materials to use in teaching thanks to Covid-19, that they will use the database, and add to it as much as possible.
What sort of material are you looking for/choosing to write about?
We are interested in anything that uses Classical myth, in its broadest sense, within an educational context and framework – we have worksheets, textbooks, audio-visual sources, quizzes and exams, lesson plans, syllabi, blogs, websites, games, comics and more. This includes materials used in the teaching of Latin and ancient Greek, and in subjects like social studies, history, literature, art, drama etc., and in multiple languages The possibilities are very wide-ranging!
Can you tell us about some particularly interesting or inspiring items from the OME survey?
I think the sheer breadth of items is what inspires me most. For example we have workplans and powerpoints from our project working with autistic children here in Israel run by Ayelet Peer under the auspices of our ACCLAIM network (see Susan Deacy’s blogpost on this ). This is an amazing venture, which uses the classical myths to help the students understand and cope with complex emotions, and demonstrates the creative ways in which mythology can be used in education.
In a different vein, I love movies, and particularly Disney’s Hercules, so I have a soft spot for resources that work with this, like the unit curriculum which describes the 12 labours of Hercules and includes discussion prompts about the myth and how it compares to Hercules in popular culture, specifically the Disney movie. And now that a remake of this film is happening, I am very curious to see what new resources will be developed when it comes out!
How can people be in touch with submissions or items?
I thought you’d never ask! You can contact my wonderful colleague Ayelet Peer on email@example.com and she will send you the short form to fill out and answer any of your questions. Or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org. We are ready and waiting eagerly to hear from you!
Thanks! I’m off to consult the survey now–especially to find out more about the comics! — Liz Hale
As a child, I loved the stories of British-American writer, Joan Aiken. I still do. One of my favourites was ‘The Ghostly Governess.” (1953) In it, Mark and Harriet Armitage, on a family holiday in an old house by the sea, find themselves haunted by the ghost of an elderly governess, Miss Allison. She keeps them up at night, learning maths and deportment, history and Latin.
Miss Allison’s ideas of education are decidedly Victorian. While Harriet lies on her back-board to improve her posture, Mark learns Latin prepositions:
“Mark, let me hear you recite. You should have it by rote now.”
“A, ab, absque,” he began.
“Never let me see you recite like that, Mark. Hands behind your back, feet in the first position, head up.” Mark obeyed peevishly.
“Now begin again.”
“A, ab, absque, coram, de,
Palam, clam, cum, ex and e
tenus, sine, pro, in prae,
Ablative with these we spy.”
“Very good, Mark, though your pronunciation is a little modern,” she said. “You may open that blue tin and have a caraway biscuit.”
The children are not fazed by Ms Allison’s appearance, as fantastic occurrences happen quite often to the Armitages. (Their adventures appear in several short story collections, and have recently been collected in one volume, The Serial Garden.) Together, they search in the attic and find a copy of an old Latin Grammar, and work on their prepositions. “Not too many people have learned Latin preposition s from a ghost. That’s something,” says Harriet.
In Aiken’s world, ghosts are generally troubled by something from their life, and Miss Allison is no exception. When Mark stumbles over the dates of the rulers of England, and misdates Queen Anne’s accession as 1700, instead of 1702, the governess bursts into tears:
“Cedric, you wicked boy,” she sobbbed, “will you never get it right? how can you expect to be a success in life, if you don’t know your dates? And you going into the Navy, too.’ She hid her face in her hands, but through them they could hear her say, “I’m getting so old. How can I die happy if that boy doesn’t know the date of Queen Anne? All the others learned it.”
The children, who are getting tired from all their midnight lessons, realise something is amiss, and they seek advice from the owner of the house, a retired Admiral who lives in a cottage nearby. It turns out he is the Cedric who could not remember Queen Anne’s dates. They reunite him with the ghostly governess, who puts the question to him:
“Just you tell me one thing,” she said, drawing herself up and giving him a piercing look. “When did Queen Anne come to the throne?”
The children gazed at him anxiously, but they need not have worried. He had learned his lesson this time.
“Seventeen-two,” he said promptly, and they sighed with relief.
Miss Allison burst into tears of joy.
“I might have known it,” she sobbed. “My good boy. Why, now you know that, you might even become an admiral, and I can die happy.”
And as they watched her, suddenly, flick! like a candle, she went out, and there was no one in the room but their three selves.
This odd little story has stayed with me. I liked it then, and I like it now: the combination of Victorian schoolroom and post-war British seaside holiday, the resourceful children and the dedicated governess. Aiken’s daughter, Lizza, has written about it (and Aiken’s remarkable literary output, including novels for adults, children, mysteries, ghost stories, fantasies and more) here.
And it’s part of my Latin-life-story, such as it is: I remember, for instance, puzzling over the prepositions. What on earth were they? They must mean something. At first, this was because I had not learned Latin, and did not know what a preposition was; later, because this kind of rote memorisation was a foreign world to my school Latin classes, with extremely battered copies of The Approach to Latin (a 1952 textbook), reel-to-reel recordings of the Cambridge Latin Course, and a range of creative projects such as play-writing, Roman feasts, and reading competitions.
Nothing ghostly about it–indeed, the emphasis was on making things as lively as possible in our small classroom. But something about “The Ghostly Governess” must have stayed with me, because I was always aware that with learning Latin we were part of a tradition much older than we were, much older than our teacher and our school–I wondered about the kids whose graffiti-ed names festooned our battered desks and grammar books, and had a sense that the works we studied had been selected for us many years previously. Indeed The Approach to Latin was published in 1952, around about the same time as “The Ghostly Governess.”
And how wonderful is Miss Allison–a teacher whose dedication goes beyond the grave. I am not sure I would have liked to have been taught by her–especially not to have done deportment and embroidery under her gaze, but I do think that if she had been my teacher, I would, to this day, know my prepositions by rote.
How great was my delight this morning to get an email from Maggie Rudy, the Oregon-based artist whose exquisite 3-D storybooks are works of art. She’s been working with local teachers to promote mask-wearing during the Covid crisis.
I’ve written up Maggie’s work in the Our Mythical Childhood survey: her retelling of Aesop’s Fable in City Mouse, Country Mouse caught my eye on a trip round the children’s section of my local library, and we’ve been in conversation about things to do with Latin and children’s literature.
Maggie developed a poster to promote mask-wearing, and put it on her website in early July. She made it available as a free download after teachers asked if they could print it for their classrooms. If you’re interested, click on this link: the image is 300 dpi, and can be printed up to 11×14. https://www.maggierudy.com/wear-a-mask-poster
It’s a lovely way to make mask-wearing less alienating and frightening, especially for kids. (And showcases Maggie’s exquisite sculptural work from found objects.)
There’s more, though! The poster is available in 45 languages (and counting), including Finnish, Polish, Hmong, Haitian Creole, Nimiiputimt, and even in Latin and Ancient Greek.
Super-cute, and full of kindness and beauty. I’m off to download and print it and put it on my office door. Gratias ago tibi, Maggie!