The shadows where History is heaviest–Cairo Jim goes to Pompeii

Following on from my last post, where I paid tribute to Brenda the Wonder Camel’s brilliant scholarship in Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis, I’m thinking more about humorous history books for kids in preparation for the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this May. I’ve been alternating between another Cairo Jim novel–Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus, and British author Gary Northfield’s Julius Zebra novels. I can’t decide which I like more, which is sillier, which is ruder, and also which offers a more interesting reflection on history. In fact, there’s no competition–they’re equally good in different ways. And I’ll talk about Julius Zebra next time. For the moment, I’ll carry on with Cairo Jim.

At the house of Phibius Whiffius

In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus, the gang gathers in Pompeii. They meet a beautiful French archaeobotanist, called Bette Noir, who is trying to reconstruct an ancient perfume, Pardalium, which gives the possessor power over all things and everyone. She found the recipe at the House of the Garden of Hercules, owned by a perfumer, she says, who was resplendently named Phibius Whiffius. In order to complete her reconstruction, she needs the spittle of a panther, and has written off to the Dubbo Zoo in NSW, Australia to request some.

While Bette Noir, Doris and Jim are chatting over drinks in the Garden of Hercules, Brenda the Wonder Camel strikes again, quietly working in Bette’s lab. She has panther in her soul, at least that’s what I think she has, and she draws on it to extract the required spittle from the depths of her being, shooting it perfectly into a waiting pipette, sealing said pipette in an envelope, and writing a message from the Dubbo Zoo. What a camel. As a calf, Brenda has swallowed the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which may account for her general brilliance.

Anyway, Bette Noir makes up the perfume, and then Neptune Flannelbottom gets hold of it, and uses it to bring the Telamons to life. Telamons are human-shaped columns, male caryatids, usually thought of as Atlas figures, support structures in other words. A telamon wandering around the streets of Pompeii could cause some damage. Luckily, Cairo Jim and his friends are equal to the challenge, and order is restored.

The evidence of time

This is all rather far-fetched. But it has a core of accuracy that provides a solid bedrock for a great deal of fun and games. There is indeed a House of the Garden of Hercules, and it is thought that the resident was involved in the perfume trade. McSkimming shares photographs of the house, and shots of different parts of Pompeii.

Cairo Jim, who early on reflects that as he walks through the streets of Pompeii, he is walking on the ‘evidence of time,’ is alert to every aspect of the city.

He observed the gentle sunlight, still not too bright at this time of day, and the way it was filtering down through the trees and the broken walls that he walked by. He listened to the birds as they sang their sweet, tiny songs all across the ruined city, and he thought how the birdsong seemed to be a balm . . . a soothing veil of sound cocooning Pompeii from the terrible memories of the past. He smelled the intoxicating aromas of ancient places–smells that he had come to recognise and love from his many years of being at sites such as this. The smells of old, old marble and terracotta, and the fragrances of shadows (he had discovered some time ago that the shadows where History is heaviest have a smell like no other), and the occasional whiff of rotting vegetation from fallen leaves all intermingled with each other, and drifted into his nostrils. (41-42).

This is just before Jim and the gang meet Bette Noir, learn about her plan to reconstruct the powerful scents of the past, and the mayhem and antics get going. Jim is moved by the scents he smells, to write a poem, which I quote below.

Pompeii had its yesterday

and yesterday before it,

but what took place, ‘neath skies of grey

and black–one can’t ignore it.

This pumice all around the town,

this litter of destruction

is testament to what went down:

Vesuvius’ interruption!

Yet now as boots with modern soles

tread quietly through the city,

we see despite the many holes

piled high with all the gritty

bits of Nature’s overflow

(these stones of igneous fury)

just what it is these ruins show:

that Time is judge and jury’ (43)

Well, it’s poetry of a sort. Doris the Macaw, one of Jim’s companions, objects: ‘There’s a time and place for poetry, and Pompeii is definitely not it!’ (43) Realism intrudes, until the preposterous plot gets going.

There’s a time and place for comedy

I’ve been mulling about the role of comedy in presenting history to young readers. Within the fun of Cairo Jim lurks a serious appreciation of ancient culture, and the novel gives a lot of information for those who seek it. With each novel I read, I learn a bit more about major archaeological sites, and with it, a bit more about ancient cultures. I’ve always preferred to glean my history from fiction: perhaps it’s the bit-by-bit approach I like, the puzzling things together, the finding things out, learning new things, being stimulated to look things up. For this post, I looked up the House of the Garden of Hercules, Telamons, and Pardalium, the ancient perfume that Bette Noir is trying to recreate. All of them are real things, though Pardalium may not possess the powers it has in this novel, and now they are things I know, as opposed to never having heard of (Pardalium), vaguely heard of (The House of the Garden of Hercules), or never really wondered about but should have (Telamons, or: what is a male Caryatid?).

Lightening the heaviness of history?

So, funny books can help you (or at least me) learn interesting facts. But can they lead you astray? This may be a worry for some guardians of scholarship, or of young minds: the danger that readers of The Crossroads of Orpheus may think that Phibius Whiffius is a real Pompeiian, that Pardalium has magic powers, that camels really can swallow the Encyclopedia Britannica and become psychic polymaths. Well, maybe not the last one (or … maybe they can . . consult your local camel to find out) . And indeed, that’s the clue: the comedy works because the funny bits are clearly of our own world, and that the real bits are clearly marked as real. Children encountering Phibius Whiffius may not instantly get the joke, but they will smell a literary rat, may ask a parent, or look things up. And they may have a discussion with parents or teachers or other children about Pompeii, what happened there, and be moved to find out more.

But having said that, Jim’s nostrils may quiver at the smells of time, and it is of course appropriate to reflect on the scale of the tragedy that Pompeii suffered, and to think with empathy about the difficulties of other parts of the world. But there is also space to reflect on how Romans (and others) lived: eating, drinking, making and smelling perfume. And sometimes, there’s simply the pure pleasure of laughter, the best medicine for all sorts of situations, past and present: lightening the heaviness, both of history and of the present.

Elizabeth Hale

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Seemingly Silly Books about a Serious Subject: Protecting the Past with Cairo Jim

In May this year, the Our Mythical Childhood project will host its second major conference: Our Mythical History.

I’ve signed up to talk about some exuberantly silly books about a very serious subject (history). I’m starting with the classical adventures in the Cairo Jim series of archaeological comedies by Australian author, Geoffrey McSkimming. I’ve ordered a pile of them through interlibrary loan, and am getting increasingly cheery emails from the wonderful librarians of UNE’s Dixson Library, as they let me know a new one has arrived. I’ve ordered all the ones with classical titles, and am only sorry that I didn’t have time to visit Sydney this summer to see Cairo Jim and the Tomb of Martenarten on stage.

There are currently 19 Cairo Jim novels, each one action packed, full of silly jokes and slapstick, and a lot of fun.

They feature the eponymous Cairo Jim, ‘that well-known archaeologist and little-known poet,’ a dreamy type who lives in the fictional ‘Valley of the Hairdressers’ in Cairo, and whose mission in life is to ‘protect the past.’ He travels the world with his helpers, Doris the Macaw and Brenda the Wondercamel, helping fight the nefarious Dr Neptune Flannelbottom Bones, a no-good scoundrel who is continually trying to get hold of powerful ancient artefacts, in company with his wicked raven helper, Desdemona. There are puns galore, secret societies, and amazing settings, reminding me of the interest I felt in seeing the scenery of other archeological adventures, such as the Indiana Jones or Mummy series.

I only know about Cairo Jim because of a recommendation a couple of years ago from the son of a colleague. I’m enjoying reading them, finding in them the occasional wonderful chuckle or vivid scene that makes me remember that jewels of literary insight are to be found in all sorts of curious places.

I’m currently reading  Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis. It’s set in Turkey, among the underground cities of Cappadocia, the fairy chimneys, Kaymakli. I write these names as if I know all about them, but in fact I don’t, I’ve heard the odd snippet, but really I’m wonderfully ignorant, and so reading this book takes me travelling with Jim, Brenda, and Doris, to a fascinating and beautiful part of the world.

It also takes us travelling to the past. The past, in the Cairo Jim novels, is in need of protection. From the predations of Neptune Flannelbottom Bone, and also from the neglect of the present. And as the villains and heroes enter the past, through important archaeological sites, they find the magic of ancient gods and rulers still alive, though often buried, covered in dust, hidden, or scattered to the winds. In this book, it’s the petticoats of Artemis that have the power, magic garments that, if united with the ‘belt of bountaeity,’ can cause mayhem and destruction, especially if they fall into Neptune Bone’s greedy hands. Even though they have been carefully hidden by a priest named Caius Vibius Salutaris, and protected by the green-fanged Belligerent Serpent of Antiocheia, the adventurers chase one another, drawn by the lure of the past, the desire for knowledge, and (in Bone’s case, greed). I won’t tell you how it ends. You can probably guess. The action comes thick and fast, and involves underground tunnels, rolling stone discs, lightning bolts, and the realisation that the magic of the mythical past is still alive, and not for mortals to handle.

There are a great many Cairo Jim novels, and McSkimming has written many other over-the-top adventures, including the Jocelyn Osgood, and Phyllis Wong series, and his book of poetry, Ogre in a Toga (which should win a prize for the title alone). McSkimming has a flair for the ridiculous, and for a turn of phrase, and it’s possible to read the books in one hilarious gulp.

Froth is not always enough, though, and I’ve been thinking about this as I work on my paper for Warsaw. What’s the difference between laughing at something serious and reflecting solemnly upon it? What’s the point? I’ll try to get there in time for my presentation.

One hint for me is in the depiction of Cairo Jim’s sidekick, the reflective and telepathic ‘wonder-camel,’ Brenda. Brenda is prone to snorting her thoughts, and exclaiming ‘quaooo,’ and at first, reading too quickly for plot, I missed how delightful a character she is. But all of a sudden, the pace slowed (or I did), and here she is at twilight while her companions chat around a campfire, quietly searching through the rubble of Aphrodisias, using her super-sensitive nose to seek for clues.

 
What I am looking for, Brenda thought deeply, is a single Latin letter.  That was the alphabet in which Caius Vibius Salutaris would have written his message, because that was the language used in Ephesus in Roman times. 
 
She didn’t know what that letter would be . . .  maybe a D or a V or a C.  Maybe not even one of those.  But she knew that once she found a single letter of the type used in the ancient Roman script, then she would probably find other letters.  Maybe they would be right next to the first letter she would find, or maybe, if the slab containing the first letter had smashed, the other letters would be on nearby fragments of marle in the grass.  If that was the case, then Jim and Doris and she would have an ancient jigsaw puzzle to piece together. 
 
As her sensitive nostrils moved across the marble, she concentrated—as hard as she had concentrated on anything before—and in her mind she began to see the curves and straight lines that made up the letters of the Latin alphabet. 
 
Carefully, with her unique Wonder Camel precision of mind, muscle and minutiae, she transferred the images in her head to the muscles of her nostrils.  (Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis, 130-131)

You don’t need me to tell you that she is successful, finding first a cool smooth slab of marble, then identifying a D, then a G, then a full inscription (in English !?), exhorting the reader to ‘Dig Beneath.’

It’s a lovely scene–a moment of needed rest in the midst of a busy plot. And what I like so much about it is the way that McSkimming captures the joy of working with material from the past: the puzzling, the shifting things about, the trying things from different angles, the patiences, the ‘precision of mind, muscle, and minutiae.’ There’s a quietness to that work, even when urgent plotlines clamour all around.

Moments of seriousness like this offer a counterbalance to the excitement, showing the research side of archaeological adventuring, the knowledge and skill (and sensitive nostrils) to find and solve the clues. They slow the reader down, and encourage them to think a little before getting caught up in the next stage of the adventure, helping with context and exposition, and giving clues to the humanity of the past–the leaver of the clue, the carver of the marble.

As part of their mission to protect the past, Brenda, Jim and Doris are part of a society of scholars. When they are on the trail of a mysterious artefact, it is for the sake of knowledge and beauty and understanding, good things to keep in mind for readers young and old. So perhaps one way into thinking about seemingly silly or frothy books is to look for moments where the narrative digs beneath the surface, pauses for reflection, before taking a breath and the action, fun, and excitement begin again.

—Elizabeth Hale

**Three of the Cairo Jim novels have been reviewed on the Our Mythical Childhood survey: Cairo Jim and the Chaos from CreteCairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheusand Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods.

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


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