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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Totally by chance, one of the characters, Claudia, had been identified as having an interest in ancient history early in the story.
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.
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.
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.
Trent Denham’s Jerome’s Gift is an award-winning picture book that shows a child overcoming challenges through ingenuity, recycling, and making do. It takes elements of the hero’s journey as inspiration, and is part of a planned trilogy, incorporating novel, graphic novel, and picture book, that Trent is working on.
I met Trent when he visited Armidale in 2014 as part of the UNE Writers and Illustrators in Residence program I was running with the help of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. While he was with us, Trent completed some illustrations for the book, and shared his expertise in art, design, and digital elements. He’s the brains behind the digital reconstruction of the destruction of Pompeii, which I will interview him about on a separate occasion.
For now, though, we’re talking about Jerome’s Gift, the inspiration behind it, and what led a Melbourne illustrator to spend so much time in the Middle Ages.
What drew you to writing/working with particular myths, and what challenges did you face?
History has always been my strongest interest, even beyond my writing and artistic practice, and though I sway a little more toward the middle ages for my inspiration, I think it is safe to say that the foundations of that period and its culture are most certainly classical. European culture continually looked back to Antiquity as a high point in society, rather than forward into the future. Looking at medieval works was what drew me deeper into the classics. I would go so far as to say that my thirst for history is what drives me in my art making and storytelling. I remember the moment I picked my first illustrated history book off the shelf in kindergarten and I was immediately enthralled.
As I grew up, I began to study and attempt to reproduce in drawing some of the great artworks of history – all of which depicted ancient myths and legends (though most were made in the high middle ages, renaissance, or neo-classical periods!). My older brother also had a beautifully illustrated kids book of stories about Achilles and Medusa and Odysseus, Cyclops, the Golden Fleece, to Thor and Siegfried. It carried me away (forever I think), to places where those stories were real, and had meaning and purpose for me to decipher. I have never really come back from that place.
I’m not sure if I ever consciously chose to adapt a particular myth with my book. What I ended up with was a variation on the ‘mono-myth’; as Joseph Campbell would put it- the hero’s journey is a universal story or experience across many if not all cultures, and it was natural for my story to develop in that way. I only latterly came to understand that about half way through the project, as part of my continued studies.
Many of the adaptations per se, or inspirations for my story have come through traditional folk tales, fables, which are a kind of myth themselves in a long tradition of oral storytelling, but also through an allegorical visual medium. Artists like Brueghel, and even more modern fantasy literature and art (which again draws heavily from mythology) have been a big influence.
Kraken, copyright Trent Denham
Jerome and the Kraken, copyright Trent Denham
Jerome’s Gift, cover copyright Trent Denham
Jerome and mother, copyright Trent Denham
Jerome on the way, copyright Trent Denham
Jerome’s boat, copyright Trent Denham
Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?
My understanding of myth is that it exists to help us through our own times and experience. It is for that reason that myth is so adaptable, and often at variance with other versions of itself. You can tell any myth from various perspectives in order to describe a particular situation. This is helpful in that it is relatable to the listener – how many ways can a Shakespeare be told and adapted for a contemporary audience for instance? It is endless!
What was truly revelatory for me was the discovery that the artists I always looked up to- the ones depicting scenes from Antiquity and mythology- have adapted those scenes for their own times! In doing this, they can make a deeper commentary on their own historical period! For example, Brueghel’s biblical “massacre of the innocents” is depicted in his own native Flanders. Why? To draw a parallel with the wartime atrocities committed by the Spanish in his own lifetime. Or his “Fall of Icarus” that features a 16th century galleon and not a Greek ship. The contemporary context places the lesson of the myth for his own audience. In turn, others can then reference Brughel’s work to give it new meaning (but you will have to look close!).
And that is how the tradition of art and storytelling continues- it changes and evolves to keep relevance in our own time. So the artists and authors I look to, in turn looked back on others yet more distant in history, and so on until the depths of time when our primitive ancestors first looked to the stars and told stories to make sense of their world.
These types of story will always be relevant to us because we have carried them with us forever, and we did so because they help us understand ourselves and the world we live in.
Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you?
Yes I did study some classics, and a lot of other history both old and new, as part of my Creative Arts degree. But the truth is that I have always undertaken studies on my own, outside of educational institutions, and was always reading stuff at home that would never have been presented to me in schools. My library is full of strange and wonderful things.
Though most of my reading is in more academic texts these days, some of my favourite and most influential books were from when I was a kid.
Asterix and the Laurel Wreath, by Goscinny and Uderzo
Timeless Myths, by Brenda Ralph Lewis
Timeless Myths, by Brenda R Lewis and illustrated by Rob McCaig, Brimax Books, 1980. That was my older brother’s book mentioned earlier (I now have a copy of my own)
And of course…
Other great and influential artists are John Howe and Alan Lee, both of whom have illustrated many myths and legends, but are probably better know for their work on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
When you were developing Jerome’s Gift, did you think about how myth and antiquity would translate for young readers, esp. in Australia?
Yes and no. I understand that regional references and situations are easier for more people to connect with, but I don’t really make stories for ‘everyone’, I make stories for strange young kids like I was, who might pick up an old history book in kindergarten and think “yes, this is for me”
Are you planning any further forays?
Definitely! In fact the history of Jerome’s Gift goes back a few stories, and the further back it goes, the deeper into myth and its own antiquity it gets. For me though, I like to use History and Mythology as a theoretical framework and not the basis of the story itself. For example, for my next book I am using chapter titles that borrow names of the siblings of Titans (like Zelos, which means ‘rivalry’, or Nike which means ‘victory’). In this way I can both reference familiar mythology, and use it as a structure to build my own narrative that relates to an understood theme. It gives me direction and inspiration to create a new world.