Retelling Theseus–Frank Sikalas and Kid Titan

A recent discovery is Brisbane based author, Frank Sikalas, whose charming retellings of mythology for kids are published through his Kid Titan imprint. I’ve been enjoying reading his graphic novels, Icarus Rising, which explores a future life for the doomed flying boy, and his Athena Warrior Goddess, dedicated to the coming of age of one of Greek mythology’s most powerful figures. And most of all, I’m enchanted by his picture book, Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero, which retells the famous legend and imparts all sorts of information about life in the age of legends.

Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero, by Frank Sikalas, illustrated by Anna Manatolos

I’m always interested to find out what draws young authors to classical myth, and I wrote to Frank Sikalas to find out. He grew up in a Greek family, ‘where the culture spilled out in every aspect of my upbringing… Greek school, Greek dancing classes, etc.’ After studying ancient history and mythology at the University of Queensland, he rediscovered his earlier love of storytelling and began writing the myths that he now publishes through Kid Titan.

Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero might be my favourite of Frank’s work so far. It does a lovely job of retelling the Theseus myth with sympathy for the different players, and conveying the spirit of the age of legends.

Anna Manatolos’s illustrations capture the whimsy of the original legend.

Frank explained that he lets the story determine what form he tells it in, and this picture book combines action with information, through word and image.

The development of this aesthetic began at the beginning of putting the first book together and the formation of Kid Titan. I felt that Kid Titan had to be represented in organic and natural tones more connected to the ancient times but with a fun and modern twist. I always think about it, every time Kid Titan is on display whether flyers or stickers.

Creating the visuals for the characters and book was one of research and style. I wanted unique styles for each publication and so once I selected and commissioned the artist, the process of putting it altogether began. I provided the artist the script and character descriptions. The process is a back and forward one where I approved the character concepts, scenes and pages.

A brooding Minotaur–by Frank Sikalas and Anna Manatolos

Other books that Frank Sikalas produces through Kid Titan are graphic novels–including adaptations of the myths of (Icarus Rising in which a revived Icarus helps rebuild a fallen world) and  Athena Warrior Goddess (in which the goddess Athena comes of age and builds her powers fighting the Titans). He doesn’t restrict himself to Greek mythology, but branches out into other areas, such as Norse and Chinese myth. Future ventures include Egyptian myths, and a young adult novel. There’s even a deck of playing cards featuring figures from myths around the world.

Frank Sikalas, launching Theseus

I asked Frank why he thinks we still connect to Classical myth.

We look towards and connect with classical mythology, I believe, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I believe it’s ingrained in us and passed on from century to century, generation to generation no matter where the myth comes from. Secondly, we seek to express ourselves, our culture and to make sense of our environments and what’s happening around us, no different to what our ancestors did.

Kid Titan, aka Frank Sikalas, dreaming up new ideas


It’s a constant source of amazement to me that so many creators from around the world are drawing on the Greek myths and combining them into new forms, and playing with new ideas. I’ll be eagerly keeping an eye on Kid Titan to see what Frank comes up with next.

Elizabeth Hale


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Adventuring with Aeneas: Julian Barr and The Way Home

In which Queensland novelist and historian Julian Barr discusses his take on the Aeneid in his young adult novel, The Way Home, which explores ideas of exile and homelessness through the eyes of a young Aeneas.  I asked Julian about process, adaptation, reception and how the Aeneid plays out in a Young Adult context.  

The Way Home was published this year by Odyssey Books.  What drew you to writing/working with Classical Antiquity and what challenges did you face in selecting, representing, or adapting particular myths or stories?

Virgil’s writing resonated with me in my late teens and I felt an urge to engage with the Aeneid creatively. I adored the sense of adventure. It was a classic quest with monsters, gods and epic battles. More than that, I loved the sensitivity of Virgil’s characterisation, particularly of Dido. After a failed attempt to translate the story from Latin into prose similar to an historical thriller, I thought this was the end of the idea. Silly me! In 2013 I attended the Classical Association conference at the University of Reading and saw many panels on classical reception in YA literature. Yet the key moment came on my way home. At Heathrow I met with a lady from Bosnia. Listening to her harrowing story of tragedy and exile, everything came together: the Aeneid is a refugee’s story from a world of gods and magic. It’s about people who yearn for a place to belong. Even now this theme is all too relevant. This idea connected with the YA panels and The Way Home was born.

There are many challenges in adapting Virgil’s writing for YA readers, not least of which is crossing genres. For example, the poem’s lengthy exposition-filled prologue lacks the immediacy and pace you need for YA. It’s better to convey such information organically. Show, don’t tell!

Making Aeneas relatable for YA readers presented a further challenge. He is a husband and a father, not a modern teenager. I dealt with it by making Aeneas as young as possible—nineteen. In his bronze-age society it was normal to be married by the mid-teens, so it made sense for Kreusa and Aeneas to have a child of three or four. I also drew on personal experiences as a young dad. Some readers raise their eyebrows at the hero as a teenage parent, but most are happy to accept it as historically authentic.

How to deal with marginalisation of women in myth? Aside from Aeneas all my viewpoint characters are female. You’ll find goddesses, queens, Amazons, healers and fisherwomen in the story. As a social historian, I’m interested in how women can exert power in a patriarchal society. It felt right to explore this in the novel. Foregrounding female viewpoints necessitates looking beyond a military context to define heroism. Rape and violence against women are also prevalent in classical myth. Glossing over confronting subjects insults young readers, who can process such things when handled sensitively. That said, you won’t find rape scenes or graphic violence in The Way Home. Instead I focus on psychological repercussions of violence, dealing with horrible things in an emotionally authentic way.

The Way Home, cover image

 

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?​

For YA readers, the cultural value of classical antiquity matters less than the visceral thrill of journeying with heroes and villains and monsters. They want to go on an adventure in a strange world with amazing characters.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?  

I have a PhD in Classics from the University of Queensland, where I taught ancient history and languages. As an education officer at the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum, I helped design the education program.

Though Virgil is my major primary source, you’ll also find elements of Homer, Herodotus, Ovid, tragedies, and even medieval romances. I drew upon too many secondary sources to name and consulted numerous translations and commentaries. I owe a debt to Michael Paschalis for his 1997 commentary considering the etymology of proper names in Virgil. If there was a quick detail or name I needed to check, I did consult Wikipedia. Guilty!

How do you think working with the Aeneid affected/affects your storytelling?

Reading the Aeneid aloud in Latin taught me that the weight of a syllable can affect readers on a subconscious level. The steady rhythm of dactylic hexameter gives the story an almost military clip. The Aeneid belongs to a society where war equals honour and glory. The metre informs my thinking about pace, keeping the story marching forward.

Aeneas and Anchises, illustrated by Matt Wolf for The Way Home
Aeneas and Anchises, illustrated by Matt Wolf for The Way Home (copyright Matt Wolf).

Aeneas is an intriguing hero, not cunning like Odysseus or invincible like Achilles. His strength is endurance. For a displaced people, that is everything. He is also unusual among epic heroes because Virgil seldom calls him a king, reflecting Roman skittishness about monarchy. Yet Virgil’s literary patron was the first emperor of Rome. The tension between abhorrence of kingship and adherence to authoritarianism colours my portrayal of Aeneas’s leadership style. My Aeneas is not a king, but a prince—one step removed from princeps.

Did you think about how Classical Antiquity would translate for young readers?

While many YA readers love mythology, the writing must be vivid from page one. Nothing bores young readers more than a dry, dusty retelling which is more monument than story. Characters should live and breathe in a way that marble statues can’t. Being emotionally authentic means digging deep into my own experience—scary, but worth it!

Since visual literacy is vital in the age of the graphic novel, I invited illustrator Matt Wolf to enrich the story with nine comic book style illustrations. Maps are another fantasy staple. Linc Morse exquisitely charted Aeneas’s travels. Readers get a thrill connecting modern and ancient place names. The map also serves as a story-telling device to draw readers into the world of the Middle Sea, so it is rendered in an antiquarian style complete with sea monsters.

Because YA readers tend to be interested in self-discovery, I didn’t lay out Aeneas’s heritage at the outset. He is on a journey toward adulthood. This distinguishes my Aeneas from Virgil’s. The Aeneas of the epic is fully formed from line one. He knows himself and his purpose, while my Aeneas must figure it out.

Many YA readers are passionate about racial diversity and don’t want another story about a white male conquering his enemies. That story has been told a bazillion times. Diversity is a challenge when working with a text whose opening line is: ‘I sing of arms and a great man.’ Hate groups sometimes co-opt antiquity to justify prejudice and bigotry. The last thing I want is for my book to celebrate unexamined privilege, but also don’t want representation to feel tokenistic. Digging a little deeper into primary sources, there is ample room to represent racial diversity. It’s not tokenism so much as realism. The heroes come from Western Asia, finding their way to North Africa via the Greek Islands. It isn’t difficult to make the diversity of the Mediterranean feel authentic, because it is.

Queer representation is more complex. How to include queer perspectives when the concept of sexual identity didn’t exist in antiquity? Nor did the concept of romantic love, even between men and women. If it did, it ideally developed during marriage. Infatuation was often viewed as a contagion. This is particularly difficult, as young readers are so invested in forming relationships. Though same-sex attraction was never an issue for ancient Greeks, I don’t envisage Greco-Roman antiquity as a utopia which celebrated all forms of love. It had its own restrictions and social norms. Speaking broadly, sexuality was conceptualised in terms of power dynamics—the idea being that partners had complementary but unequal roles. It’s complicated. I’m uncomfortable depicting relationships in terms of unequal distribution of power in a YA novel. Nobody wants to portray abusive relationships as normal. So I compromised. My characters form romantic relationships with people their own age much like today. Some are attracted to their own sex. It’s just part of who they are and nobody bats an eyelid.

How concerned were you with ‘accuracy’ or ‘fidelity’ to the original?  (another way of saying that might be—that I think writers are often more ‘faithful’ to originals in adapting its spirit rather than being tied down at the level of detail—is this something you thought about?)

As the project evolved from translation to adaptation, I had to tell the story in my own voice. It’s an original work which captures what makes the story significant to me. My goal is to entertain rather than educate. Every generation has reinterpreted the Aeneid. Therefore I had no qualms about changing certain details, so long as the world-building was consistent. However, I do ensure the story remains recognisable, so I avoid inventing things for its own sake. The changes I make are hopefully sympathetic to the poem, if not a carbon copy. Sometimes I’m not bucking against the poem but traditional adaptations of myth. For example, Zeus is more antagonistic than you might expect. In many adaptations Zeus becomes a whimsical benefactor, but my version of Zeus is as deceitful, violent, and manipulative as he is in many myths.

The secondary characters of The Way Home are also more fleshed out. Trojans fill the Aeneid, but they are little more than names pushed into the background to make the great man appear greater. I wanted to show Aeneas isn’t the only one contributing to the Trojans’ survival. For this I drew upon Book 5 of the Aeneid. In the funeral games and descent within the Trojan ranks, Virgil allows his secondary characters a rare moment to shine. I extrapolated their personalities and relationships from their behaviour. Sometimes I had little choice but to change the characters’ names or combine them. Fans of the Aeneid may find Akhates noticeable by his absence—readers kept getting him confused with Ankhises! So he became Mnestheos.

Readers may also notice structural differences between the Aeneid and The Way Home. The story progresses in linear order as it is easier to follow. I also write in third person throughout, avoiding Virgil’s technique of having Aeneas narrate portions of the story. This allows me to alternate between Aeneas’s viewpoint and those of the gods. Shifting viewpoints increases tension and widens the scope of the narrative.

I expanded the role of Pyrrhos, making him a main antagonist. In the Aeneid Pyrrhos shows up, murders the royal family, then departs. Ancient readers would know that Pyrrhos gets his comeuppance off stage. Yet this doesn’t feel right for the novel because I can’t count on the reader’s prior knowledge of Greek myth. Introducing a villain and leaving him unvanquished would break a promise to the reader. Given that most of the antagonists are immortal, it feels dramatically satisfying for Aeneas to have an adversary he can overcome. Also, it would have been a little dull to follow the Trojans wandering aimlessly from island to island, so having a Greek warlord pursuing them escalates the tension nicely.

There are other, pretty big changes… But I won’t spoil those!

Julian Barr
Julian Barr

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?​

The sequel, The Ivory Gate, will be released in 2019. I’m also querying agents with another classically inspired fantasy set in a world like Roman Britain, only with talking animals and giant automatons. Plus I’m translating Byzantine sources on St Nicholas with Dr Amelia Brown. The project is due for completion next year. Most of my stories deal with classical material, but not all. The world is full of amazing stories that want to be told. I’ll never find time for them all, but I’ll take my best crack at it!

–Julian Barr, in conversation with Elizabeth Hale.  Julian has a lively blog, which you can read here.

Disco et Doceo–Classical Wisdom in the Australian Classroom

This week I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Classical Languages Teachers Association conference in Sydney.  Its guiding words were ‘Disco et Doceo: Classical Wisdom K012 and Beyond.’  (For non-Australian readers, K-12 means from kindergarten to year 12, or throughout the years of primary and secondary school).

There, I spoke about the Our Mythical Childhood project to a dynamic and dedicated (and very well-dressed) group of classics teachers from around Australia, and beyond.  The CLTA is the leading body of school classics educators, and there were well over 60 teachers in attendance, including representatives from most States of Australia, and visitors from New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Eureka!  An introduction to Classical Greek for young Australians

Dr Emily Matters, who heads the Association, organised the conference, and put together a program of presentations about aspects of classics, and aspects of classics teaching. Emily is the brains behind the Eureka! Greek textbook, which may be unique in the world in uniting the study of Ancient Greek with the mythology and customs of Indigenous Australians.

Eureka! in good company, with the conference booklet, a hard copy of the Legonium lessons, and other goodies from the conference bag
Eureka! in good company, with the conference booklet, a hard copy of the Legonium lessons, and other goodies from the conference bag

ACARA, Pro Archia, and Rhetorical Flair

Dr Tracey McAllister from ACARA, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, shared the story of the development of the Australian Classical Languages Curriculum.  While its initial focus was on Classical Greek and Latin, significantly, it was set as a framework to assist the development of other Classical Languages–perhaps a world first in any educational authority.  Tracey is a convert to the cause of Classical Languages and stated that she believes all students would benefit from the study.

Other speakers included A/Prof Kathryn Welch (University of Sydney), fresh off a plane from Italy,  who talked about the background to Pro Archia, and Dr Alexander Bril (Sydney Grammar School), who took us through our rhetorical paces and shed light on some important Ciceronian dates.  And Dr Anne Rogerson, (University of Sydney) spoke about the Aeneid’s Book I, inspiring me to think more about the ways that classical narrative patterns map onto aspects of children’s literature storytelling. Do stories lead us homewards, or Romewards?  It depends, in children’s and classical literature alike.

Classicum–Contributions Welcome

Anne Rogerson is the incoming editor of Classicum, the journal of the CLTA and the Classical Association of New South Wales. She writes:

We welcome articles of various lengths on Ancient Greek and Latin literature, history, philosophy, archaeology and their reception, as well as essays on the teaching of Classical languages or other topics relating to ancient Greece and Rome, and reflective pieces from practitioners on performances and other artistic productions that present or respond to Classical material. We also publish review essays on books, exhibitions, performances and other art that relate explicitly or implicitly to the ancient world. Our aim is to make the Classical past and our modern engagements with it accessible to a broad audience while also publishing work of use and interest to scholars and teachers of the Classical world.

To read Classicum, or to be in touch with Anne, check out the link, here.

Classical Swag

Jessica from Legonium, a friendly horn-blower, and an example of Dorothy Healey's pottery reconstructions
Jessica from Legonium, a friendly horn-blower, and an example of Dorothy Healey’s pottery reconstructions

Those of us who received conference bags were lucky enough to take home one of Dorothy Healey’s wonderful recreations of Ancient Greek pottery, as well as other less ‘authentic’ goodies, including a gingerbread Roman Legionary duck (made by the Central Coast’s best bakery. ) And Anthony Gibbins of Legonium fame (and Sydney Grammar School) kindly donated a hard copy of his Latin lessons, and ‘Jessica,’ one of the minifigures who stars in the series.

Legionary Duck at Conference Dinner . . .
Disco et Ducky-o: Legionary Gingerbread at Conference Dinner . . .

 

Classical Inspirations

I went home, clutching my swag, but more importantly inspired, and educated, by the creativity and dedication of the teachers I met and heard from.  It may not yet be compulsory for students to study classics or classical languages in Australian high schools, but judging by the energy in the room, that day may well be on the way.  It was a privilege to be involved in this gathering of the people who introduce such wonderful material to the next generation of classical scholars.

–Liz Hale

 

 

 

 

Learning Latin through Lego: Legonium

How better to learn Latin than through a series of Lego-based adventures?  Anthony Gibbins, Latin Master at Sydney Grammar, is taking the internet by storm with his terrific Legonium site, which provides simple story-based approaches to Latin, and featuring the adventures of different lego characters.  It’s a superb example of the kinds of creative work that classics teachers are doing to communicate the delights of Latin to new generations.  

I was curious about how he came to have such a great idea, and admiring of the dedication and creativity that goes into maintaining it.  Anthony also has a very lively Twitter feed at @tutubuslatinus and so I’m thrilled that he was able to take the time to answer a few questions. It looks like there’s many more fascinating episodes ahead, so Latin-learners have some great things ahead of them.

Where did your ideas come from?  Why Lego?

The scope of Legonium has grown over time, and will hopefully continue to grow. The first aspect of Legonium was the fabulae.

I enjoy writing stories in Latin, but have always wanted these stories to be illustrated. An early example is the Gilbo series that can be found at the Tar Heel Reader website. A few years ago I was reflecting on the many wonderful novellas that were then being published in Latin and feeling that I was missing out. I began to think once more about how I could illustrate a story book.

I had recently began collecting Lego kits. I started with Star Wars, then crossed to the Modular Series, the large detailed buildings that make up Legonium. It suddenly occurred to me that I could very easily create detailed illustrations by setting up and photographing scenes with these Lego sets. The idea was born from there. I set up a website and began posting daily blogs, which I promoted with Twitter. I had only a rough idea where the story was going, and as I bought new buildings the story continued to develop.

 

Screenshot 2018-09-12 21.17.02

Totally by chance, one of the characters, Claudia, had been identified as having an interest in ancient history early in the story.

Screenshot 2018-09-12 21.16.48

 It occurred to me that perhaps she could visit Pompeii. I contacted the Nicholson Museum, (which houses an elaborate Lego reproduction of Pompeii) and they were very enthusiastic about the model being used for such a project. So that is how Claudia managed to get to Pompeii in episode 7 of series 1.  It later occurred to me that it would be a good place to finish the first story too. Fortunately, the museum allowed me to return, and the climactic final showdown was set in the ancient city as well.

I am now working on the second series of the fabulae, which is more of a love story. It is proving to be a much slower process, but I have 3 episodes completed (http://www.legonium.com/tertia-decima/) and an entire 12 ‘episode’ series planned out. It is really just a matter of me writing and photographing the stories. Perhaps in the next holidays…

Roll on the holidays!  Why did you use modern Lego, rather than ancient?  Did this shape your storytelling?  

Legonium itself – the buildings available in the Modular series – dictated that the stories be set is something like the modern world – you may notice that no one has a mobile phone. I was happy with this restriction, as I have spent quite a lot of time in Latin immersion environments, and this gave me an opportunity to write stories about the types of things I was discussing in my conversations; tall buildings, busses, aeroplanes, suitcases et cetera. However, on Twitter I do take the opportunity to engage with the ancient world. I regularly post announcements of Roman festivals and religious holidays (http://www.legonium.com/ianuarius/) . There are also posts of quotes from ancient authors, illustrated of course with Lego. Much of this can now be found on the website.

Screenshot 2018-09-12 21.17.19
http://www.legonium.com/

 Do you use Legonium in your own classroom?

I do use it in my own classroom, but not as much as some other teachers I have heard of. But when there is time, I might read through parts of stories with Year 9, 10 and 11 classes. I am currently working on a grammar reference series, beginning with the uses of the cases. I can certainly see myself using this with classes once it is complete.

 What made you use the Harry Potter figures and stories? 

I worked very very hard to be able to read Harrius Potter. It is not simple Latin, and there was a lot on unfamiliar vocabulary within. But now that I can pick it up (the first book at least) and read any given page, I am glad that I put in the work. I decided that a series of Tweets on Harrius Potter would allow other people to read it a little bit faster than I could (http://www.legonium.com/harrius-150/). I also secretly hoped that it might catch the attention of J.K. Rowling, although that did not happen. Harry Potter gave a lot of my earliest students a genuine curiosity for Latin, and I think the subject owes a great deal to their author. When I got to the end of the first chapter, there was little enthusiasm from the Twitter audience to continue, so I decided to hang it up there. I could always go back to it at some time – I would probably skip a few chapters and sink my teeth into something towards the end.

Maybe J. K. Rowling is a secret fan!  How concerned are you with ‘accuracy’ (i.e. fidelity to ancient Roman culture, fidelity to smaller nuances of language)?

I am very concerned with accuracy. I do make occasional mistakes but I make every effort not to. If I don’t know how to say something, I will try to find out – I figure that’s a hole in my knowledge that I can fill. I have a good selection of books to help me, as well as a an extremely knowledgeable and generous department at the school where I teach. If I can’t figure it out, I won’t guess at it. I just think of something else to say. I don’t want to be responsible for spreading bad Latin. I do, however, still make mistakes. The Latin community is very gentle in their corrections, and I appreciate it that people are looking out for errors.

The one exception I make is for issues of gender. The word poeta – for example – is a masculine noun. But I have no qualms using it to describe a woman, and pairing it with a feminine adjective. I do get a little pushback on that, but not a lot.

What other projects are you working on that you’re willing to share with us?

I’m currently working on two other projects. I am building a Roman villa out of Lego, which I will upload to Lego Ideas. Lego Ideas is a great platform, which allows Lego fans to propose Lego kits. If the Roman villa can gain ‘support’ from 10,000 people, Lego will consider producing it as a kit. Supporters only have to click on a button on the ideas website and answer three questions, but they do have to have a Lego web-account.

 The second project is a card game called Bellum Sacrum. This is a battle-royal between two teams of Roman gods and goddesses. The game is working very well and we are currently working on card layout. I hope to have it ready to playtest more broadly soon.

–Anthony Gibbins in conversation with Liz Hale

 

 

When Hades Lives Next Door: Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten

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.’  

Screenshot 2018-08-27 20.38.51
Rose knocks on Mr. Wintergarten’s door . . .

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.

Screenshot 2018-08-27 20.43.01
A different kind of Cerberus–by William Blake http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/collection/international/print/b/blake/ipd00006.html

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.

–Elizabeth Hale