Earlier this year I visited Canberra, and the brilliant National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature to see what Australian texts I could find for the Our Mythical Childhood Survey. I was lucky enough to be shown around by the Centre’s Director, the wonderful Belle Alderman, who has spent countless hours building the collection, and ensuring, in company with a team of dedicated volunteers, not only that it contains a comprehensive collection of Australian children’s literature, but that it also contains as much writing about the collection as possible, recording reviews, scholarly work, and more. It’s quite a collection, and testimony to the extraordinary creativity of Australian children’s authors and illustrators.
In passing, she mentioned the work of Bob Graham. I hadn’t heard of Bob Graham (I use not being an Australian as an increasingly feeble excuse not to know about writers and illustrators and places and traditions that I surely ought to know by now). I found my way to G for Graham, and discovered a body of picture books that are lively, funny, warm-hearted, inclusive, kind, and insightful.
Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten
Most of them were not particularly classical in intent, or inspiration, at least I don’t think so. But all of a sudden one of them, Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten, blew me away. I casually flicked it open, to read a story about a little girl whose family moves in next door to a scary old man who lives by himself, rides a crocodile at dark (or so the neighbourhood children say), and if you kick your ball over the fence, warns one of Rose’s friends, ‘forget it.’
Rose, of course, kicks her ball over the fence into the scary, bristly, grey garden of Mr. Wintergarten. Despondently, she tells her mother what has happened. Thank goodness for brave mothers. ‘They say he eats kids!’ says Rose. ‘We’ll give him some cakes instead,’ says Rose’s mum, who gives her some hot fairy cakes, and takes her to knock on the door of their intimidating neighbour. At the gate, they are met by his growling dog. Rose gives the dog a cake. When she knocks, Mr. Wintergarten lets her in, and though he growls at her, too, and tells her she can’t have her ball back, she leaves him the cakes, and some flowers from her garden.
Then, Mr. Wintergarten does something he has not done for a long time. He opens his curtains, and watches her leaving with her mother. He shares his fairy cake with his dog. Then he does something else he has not done for a long time: he goes into his garden, finds the ball, and starts to play with it, coattails flying. He kicks the ball back over the fence to Rose; his slipper goes with it, and she returns it. Everyone is happy. The story ends with a wide shot of Mr. Wintergarten’s fence coming down, as he plays soccer with Rose and her mother.
It’s a very sweet story, about kindness, friendship, tolerance, difference, isolation, integration, families, youth, old age, and more. And accordingly it appears on many a class and teaching list in Australia and around the world. But what almost no one has noticed (apart from one or two reviewers) is that this is a simplified, and modified, version of the Persephone myth. I noticed it immediately, because of my work in the survey. Perhaps it was another example of the frequency illusion that Miriam Riverlea has talked about, but as I read, I realised that Rose, and her sisters Blossom and Faith, are symbols of spring and of hope. Their mother, who like many Bob Graham adults is dressed a bit like a hippie, is wearing Greek clothing, and is a kind of Demeter figure in her association with nature and nurturing. The fairy cakes are versions of the honey cakes; the dog is a version of Cerberus (though with only one head, and no snake for a tail); and Mr. Wintergarten and his bristly grey garden are versions of Hades the god, and Hades the realm of the underworld.
In the original myth, Demeter didn’t march Persephone to the door of Hades and send her in to get her ball back. Hades grabbed Persephone and Demeter made a profoundly brave journey to bring her daughter (and Spring) back to the earth. It’s a myth about the seasons, of course, and that we are going into Spring now in Australia, may be why I’m thinking about this book right now.
The Hades Next Door
Anyway, retellings and adaptations don’t have to be faithful. But there is something faithful in the spirit of this book, to the original myth, in its joy in nature, and its sympathy for the shades of Hades. If we take out the darker elements of the myth, perhaps there’s an argument to be made that Persephone brightened Hades up a bit, and that Hades needs to be rescued from the underworld too.
Children’s literature is full of stories in which simple, artless, innocent children bring lonely and bitter old people back to life. Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna are two of the more famous examples. Perhaps they are Persephone stories in reverse as well. I think Graham’s very clever to bring these two iconic stories together so sympathetically, and with such light-hearted illustrations. It doesn’t really matter that the classical inspiration is so light that most of us won’t notice it (though of course the joy of discovery is not to be underestimated!). What matters is that it’s a good story, well told.
What’s the moral of this story? That a bit of kindness goes a long way; that fairy cakes always perform a special kind of magic, and that even in a gentle picture book set in an ordinary Australian suburb, the myths of Ancient Greece are making themselves felt. Hades might live next door. So might Persephone. They certain live in several books in the National Centre for Children’s Literature, and I hope to visit them again soon.