Since 1945, the Children’s Book Council of Australia has been promoting quality children’s literature in this country. It does so through activities, outreach, and through a venerable program of literary awards. These awards are celebrated every year in Children’s Book Week, and they’re an important event in the children’s literature calendar. Children, teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators and publishers eagerly await the announcements. The endorsement of the Children’s Book Council means a lot–it’s a stamp of approval for children’s literature that the judges regard as beautifully produced, well written and illustrated, and relevant to children’s lives. There are several categories, by age group and genre, and then there is the announcement of the overall winner, the Book of the Year.
Normally Children’s Book Week is held in August (towards the end of the Australian winter–a reliable sign that spring is coming…), but this year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is held in October. This week, in fact.
In a year which demonstrated how difficult the world can be, the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards have recognised thought-provoking and uplifting stories that allow young people to take on all challenges
I must say, that although it has been a difficult year, it has also been a year in which the value of storytelling–of writing and reading, of producing and receiving stories–has been well and truly recognised. Even though in Australia the artistic community has been hit very hard by the impacts of the COVID-19 shutdowns (and our governments could be doing rather more to support creative industries in general), it’s very clear how much we rely on storytelling–to lift our spirits, free our minds, open up the world to our imaginations, and help us think through all sorts of issues. There’s something about immersing oneself in a book that is better for the brain that the jittery rush of doom-scrolling and constant panic about the state of the world.
I’ve been watching in admiration as writers and illustrators adjust their usual whirlwind of book tours and classroom visits to promote their works, and encourage the joy of stories–through zoom events, online conferences, twitterfests and more.
And so it’s wonderful to see the Children’s Book Council of Australia also adjust–one of Australia’s older literary establishments finding a way to celebrate storytelling in these strange times. The theme for Book Week this year is Curious Creatures, Wild Minds, and you can click on the link to see the program for the week.
And in terms of the Book of the Year, here are the announcements, made by well-known Australians: enjoy!
Beached Az is an Australian series of short animations about a New Zealand whale who gets stuck on a small tropical island and becomes friends with a local seagull.
It has simple designs, and simple dialogue: sample:
Whale: “Oh No! I’m beached! I’m beached as!”
Seagull: “What are you doing, bro?”
Whale: “Dude, I’m beached as!”
Beached Az, series 1, episode 1.
It’s very funny, most of its humour coming from word play, repetition, and those accents. Whale and Seagull speak in the Australian approximation of a New Zealand accent–the a sounds like an e, i sounds like a u, the o sounds like oi, es sound like is, and so on. Seagull offers Whale a chup (a chip); Whale says ‘no I only eat plenkton (plankton).’ Their talk, too, is peppered with Kiwi slang–they often refer to each other as ‘bro;’ and say ‘sweet as,’ instead of awesome. Australians love making fun of how Kiwis speak, and this show offers a concentrated dose of friendly trans-Tasman mockery.
And it’s a sweet little series–of harmless and pointless conversations, with the occasional moment of depth and seriousness. Which brings us to Poseidon.
I just kind of Nep-tuned you out…
In the opening to the third series, Whale and Seagull have the opportunity to be really serious, when they meet Poseidon, the god of the sea. Poseidon’s despondent because of the pollution and rubbish in the sea. Whale and Seagull try to change the subject and cheer up the gloomy god, but Poseidon’s not having it.
He takes them on a journey into the future, to show them what the oceans will become–dirty, built up, and full of robots. Indeed Seagull and Whale become cyborgs (Cygull and Whaleborg), but if Poseidon is making a point, it’s lost to the duo, who delightedly play with their robot powers, until the god loses his temper and shouts:
Poseidon: Yes I suppose your particuar situation has possibly improved, but we can’t allow ourselves to be befuddled by technology while nature is DYING!
Poseidon takes them back to the present, and tries again:
Whale/Seagull: Aww, Poseidon!
Poseidon: I was showing you the future to show you how bad it gets.
Whale: If you’re God of the Oceans, why don’t you just change it then. You’re powerful as.
Poseidon: It doesn’t work like that. I can’t affect humans’ free will. They must realise they’re not separate from nature, you’re part of nature–
Seagull: Aw, sorry, I wasn’t listening there. I just kind of Nep-tuned you out.
The environmental dilemma in a nutshell–a desperate nature god, ignored by mates who just want to chat and muck about. But of course the point is made–if humans don’t do something about our relationship with the world, we too are in big trouble.
Consulting the Urban Dictionary on the term ‘beached az,’ I find that the phrase has entered the vernacular–to be ‘beached as,’ is not at all like anything ‘sweet as.’ It’s to be in deep trouble–to be beached, like the whales that sometimes wash up on New Zealand shores–to be out of one’s depth, and up a creek without a paddle. Choose your simile or metaphor: the point makes itself.
Beached Az, meantime, is doing its bit to help the world–through sly humour and using Poseidon as a hapless straight-man, a foil to the chat of Seagull and Whale. Perhaps if humans are paying attention (and not Nep-tuning things out), some of the message will get through.
This week, my students have been discussing Flora and Ulysses, by bestselling American children’s writer, Kate DiCamillo. It’s the tale of a lonely girl named Flora, who looks out of her bedroom window one day to see a squirrel being sucked into a rogue vacuum cleaner, along with a book of poetry and some crackers.
Racing to the rescue, Flora gives the squirrel CPR and mouth-to-mouth, and brings him back to life. As they look into one another’s eyes, it is a case of instant love and recognition, and she names the squirrel Ulysses, after the vacuum cleaner (its brand is the Ulysses2000).
What has happened inside that vacuum cleaner? We don’t know for sure, but Ulysses awakes from his experience transformed into a poet. When Flora takes him home, he sneaks downstairs at night, lured by the smell of cheese crackers in the kitchen, and spends a little time at her mother’s typewriter composing poetry.
And so it goes. Flora’s mother, a romance writer, does not take kindly to her grumpy daughter’s new pet, and begins a plot to remove Ulysses from the scene (a sack and a shovel feature). Flora’s father, a sad accountant, introduces Flora to his neighbour, Dr Meescham, a philosopher from another country who advises Flora to believe in the squirrel, and to believe in whatever the world throws at her. Flora’s neighbour (the owner of the vacuum cleaner) shows up with another book of poetry, and her scientific nephew, William, who complicates the plot by befriending Flora’s mother and advising her on her latest romance novel. Ulysses saves Flora’s father’s bald head from the claws of his landlord’s cat, a wicked creature named Mr Klaus. In the local diner, Ulysses is nearly killed by a knife-wielding chef, who does not take kindly to hungry squirrels looking for donuts, and Flora saves him by sticking out her foot and tripping said chef. Ulysses writes poetry. Flora, who hasn’t been sure, learns that her parents love her. The novel closes with Flora, lonely no longer, sitting on the horsehair couch of Dr Meescham, surrounded by her friends and family, and Ulysses, who provides an epilogue which sums up the novel’s deeper meanings.
Flare up like flame–reading Rilke to Ulysses
It’s a very strange book: sometimes so wacky that you think it’s overreaching; sometimes very touching, sometimes (often) very funny, sometimes (often) thoughtful and profound. And it’s highly literate and highly literary. The novel abounds with different kinds of writing and thinking. Flora and her father enjoy reading comic books–The Great Incandesto, Terrible things can happen, The Criminal Mind are Flora’s go-to books when she encounters challenges. Flora’s mother writes romances. Ulysses writes poetry. Tootie Tickham reads Yeats and Rilke and James Joyce. William and Dr Meescham think about science and philosophy. Dr Meescham quotes Pascal. Tootie Tickham quotes Rilke:
In reading Rilke to Ulysses, Tootie gives the squirrel a model for his poetry, at least that’s what I think is going on. It’s a lovely moment, sending Ulysses on a quest, a poetic journey to chase the truth. His poems are interspersed through the novel, often summing up preceding plot points, and providing much-needed moments of rest in a novel that is full of antics. We should all be so lucky to read the poetry of our animal companions.
Ulysses’ odyssey offers a nice counterpoint to Flora’s journey of discovery. Hers is a journey from isolation to integration, from reading comics alone in her room to being surrounded by friend on Dr Meescham’s magical couch, reassured that both her parents love her, despite their divorce (the novel delicately doesn’t promise that they will reunite, but shows them united in their love for their daughter). Flora begins the novel a self-professed ‘cynic,’ guarding her heart from disappointment. Her motto is ‘Do not hope. Instead, observe,’ and is taken from the advice comic she likes to read, TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU.
It’s hard to imagine a children’s book that could leave Flora in this state–of cynical despair. Optimism is children’s literature’s stock in trade. Flora’s mother, who seems hard-bitten and bossy to her daughter, confesses her worries, to Ulysses (before forcing him to write a fake farewell note to Flora):
Of course, Flora’s mother misses the point. The world may not be kind to the strange, but where would good stories be without them? And Ulysses proves himself to be a better, truer, kinder writer than she is, and a good friend. To paraphrase E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (which is the next novel we discuss in my class), ‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Ulysses was both.’ Ulysses sees Flora as she truly is, and not in terms of externals or social judgements.
This all might seem rather minute, a small domestic drama, and the novel is set in an ordinary American suburb (home, apartment, neighbourhood diner). But in its very smallness, Flora and Ulysses dreams big dreams, which Ulysses sums up in his poems. Almost all of them are about roundness, and about the world. When Ulysses awakes in Flora’s arms following his incident with the vacuum cleaner, he looks into her eyes, and sees a whole world there, and his poetry throughout the novel is about the roundness and completeness of the world.
So, whether we see the novel as a mock epic (and Flora continually imposes this idea on Ulysses’ actions, viewing them as snippets from the superhero comics she loves), or a suburban odyssey, what is definitely going on is that DiCamillo takes seriously the needs of child protagonists and child readers, finding in the smallest of them, big ideas, hopes, and dreams.
Scouring the UNE library shelves for inspiration last week, I came upon a copy of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, the Latin translation of . . . you know what. It belonged to an old friend, and so I checked it out, along with several other translations of children’s books, to think about what inspires us to translate our favourite books into our favourite languages.
As the great Wilfried Stroh explains (in Latin) there’s a long tradition of children’s books in Latin from Winnie ille Pu to Fabula de Jemima Anate-Aquatica. . . It’s no easy task to achieve, either. Anyway, here’s Peter Needham’s opening lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Latin,
Puer Qui Vixit
Dominus et Domina Dursley, qui vivebant in aedibus Gestationius Ligustrorum numero quattuor signatis, no sine superbia dicebant se ratione ordinaria vivendi uti neque se paenitere illius rationis. in toto orbe terrarum vix credas quemquam esse minus deditum rebus novis et arcanis, quod ineptias tales omnino spernebant.
Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, trans. Peter Needham (1)
Magic, eh! You can look up the English for yourselves.
In the meantime, some thoughts about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which I am teaching this summer as part of a unit introducing techniques of literary study through children’s books. The idea is that in seemingly simple texts such as Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, and other well-known kids’ books, we can explore different elements of literary technique and thought. Some of these books (such as Matilda and Once There Was a Boy) are highly intertextual and draw on myths, legends, and fairy tales, and so I’m exploring that aspect as well.
Harry Potter and the many allusions to Latin
Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone is full of allusions and intertexts. It’s a pastiche of styles and influences, and much of its success must surely come from the way in which Rowling tells a story that is familiar in concept and structure, but also original, imaginative, and new. Roald Dahl’s influence is clear in the horrible Dursleys–grotesque in shape and behaviour–contrasted with Harry’s innocence but also his ability to take vengeance when necessary. The battles of Star Wars, between Luke, a novice good-guy and Darth Vader, an overwhelmingly powerful bad-guy, complete with colour-coded technological swords, are another clear influence–if we swap Harry for Luke, and wands for light-sabres, the parallels are clearer still. The influence of the British school story, with competitions between student Houses, good, bad, and unfair teachers, is also clear: the Quidditch matches of Harry Potter are not unlike the obsession with rugby in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (and a host of imitators). And so on. There are books, articles, talks galore that dig out and enjoy the parallels.
You don’t have to recognise the allusions to enjoy Harry Potter, of course, but it makes for a rich reading experience if you do. And for the classically-inclined (Rowling herself was a classics student), the novels are peppered with references to the ancient world, through names, mythical creatures, snatches of Latin, and classical precedents and parallels.
There are the names of important witches and wizards, for instance: Minerva McGonagall, the wise and wily deputy headmistress of Hogwarts, named after the Roman version of the goddess Athena (and, incidentally, Scotland’s weirdest poet, William McGonagall). Albus Dumbledore, headmaster and personification of goodness: where Albus means ‘white,’ or ‘shining’, and Dumbledore is a dialectal word for bumblebee. Rubeus Hagrid, his loyal sidekick, takes his first name from the Latin for red, a popular name in mediaeval times. Dedalus Diggle is one of the first wizards to celebrate the initial defeat of Voldemort: his name recalls the great inventor, father of Icarus, designer of the labyrinth. Severus Snape recalls the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD), but more than that, his name means ‘severe, or serious’; Draco Malfoy is named after the Latin for dragon (as befits a proud member of Slytherin), and also the first lawmaker of the city-state of Athens, known for his harshness (such as giving the death penalty for minor crimes, like stealing a cabbage). Hermione Granger is named after the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, a spirited woman who fights to marry the man she wants, Orestes. Argus Filch, the grouchy janitor/groundskeeper, seems to be everywhere at once, like his namesake, the hundred-eyed guardian, Argus Panoptes, whose eyes ended up decorating the tail of Hera’s bird, the peacock.
These are only the names from the first book in the series. Throughout, Rowling is very clever with her use of names, balancing Latin and English, Old French, and dialects, and applying them meaningfully to major and minor characters alike. (I was delighted to see that Professor Sprout, the herbology teacher, rejoices in the first name, Pomona–the Roman goddess of apples and ‘fruitful abundance’) These names create a tapestry of additional meaning, supporting the sense that the Harry Potter books are set in a world like, but not quite like, our own, full of echoes and allusions.
Magical names are part of a magical world, and much of the appeal of the novels comes from the interweaving of magical creatures with everyday life. Rowling draws again on mythology: Harry Potter’s wand has the feather of a phoenix in it; so too, Dumbledore has a companion phoenix (Fawkes, named after Guido Fawkes, one of the gunpowder plot conspirators). Dragons feature, in names, in passwords (caput Draconis), and in an egg that Hagrid won off a guy down the pub. ‘Galloping Gorgons’ cries Hagrid when he remembers something he ought to have done, perhaps feed ‘Fluffy,’ the three-headed dog who guards a trapdoor to a secret underworld, much like his mythological counterpart Cerberus. And of course there are the centaurs, learned stargazers who live in the forest near the school and worry about the messages in the planets.
And into the clearing came–was it a man, or a horse? to the waist, a man, with red hair and beard, but below that was a horse’s gleaming chestnut body with a long, reddish tale. Harry and Hermione’s jaws dropped.
‘Oh it’s you, Ronan,’ said Hagrid in relief. ‘How are yeh?’
He walked forward and shook the centaur’s hand.
‘Good evening to you, Hagrid,’ said Ronan. He had a deep, sorrowful voice. ‘Were you going to shoot me?’
‘Can’t be too careful, Ronan,’ said Hagrid, patting his crossbow. ‘There’s summat bad loose in this forest. This is Harry Potter, an’ Hermione Granger, by the way. Students up at the school. An’ this is Ronan, you two. He’s a centaur.’
‘We’d noticed,’ said Hermione faintly.
(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 184)
The mythological creatures add depth and mystery to the novels–suggesting a pagan otherworldliness, or old magic, that is qualitatively different from the witches and wizards of modern faerie. They don’t participate much in the action, but come by occasionally, giving a sense that they’ve seen many a battle between good and evil. . .
Going deeper into storytelling and interextuality: as a hero story, the Harry Potter novels participate in all sorts of classical traditions. One can view them as a quest, in which Harry finds the resources (external and internal) to battle ultimate evil in the form of Voldemort. One can view them, as Vassiliki Panoussi does, as a foundation epic, in which Harry and his friends build an army to establish a brave new world. There are echoes of Greek tragedy, as Brett Rogers notes, in Rowling’s world view, especially where the tyranny of educators over students is concerned. Harry Potter, like much great fantasy literature, has richness, depth, and a profound morality, which drawing on classical parallels helps point to.
Harrius Potter and Our Mythical Childhood
The Our Mythical Childhood survey, of course, has entries on the world of Harry Potter. There’s entry 641 on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and entry 65 on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And while I didn’t grow up reading these books, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a member of Dumbledore’s Army, I am entranced by the mixture of Latin and magic, imagination and power that make the Harry Potter novels a mythical experience–in English, in Latin, or even in Ancient Greek .
Ever wondered where a centaur overlaps with a mermaid? Why on earth not? British designer Jez Kemp has developed the ultimate diagram to help you do so. Miriam Riverlea explains… and finds connections with the novels of Tobias Druitt into the bargain…
The internet is a trove of the weird and the wonderful, and it is exciting to see web-based material being recorded within the Mythical Childhood survey within the ‘Ephemeral’ category. I recently came across this Mythical Creatures Chart (via the Partial Historians blog). Created by British designer Jez Kemp in 2012, the chart applies the design principles of a Venn diagram to highlight the hybrid elements of mythological creatures, both from the classical and other traditions. The colourful globular shapes represent different species (including human, horse, lion, bird…), which overlap each other, so that the Minotaur is the fusion between human and bull, and the Chimaera is positioned in the space where the lion, goat, snake, and lizard intersect.
Like some sort of psychedelic
rainbow coloured lava lamp, Kemp’s chart is a clever, visually striking way to
organise the information (t-shirts and posters are available for purchase). As he explains in a blog post, it features 17
real world animals to include 57 mythical creatures. It also includes an area demarcating ‘More
body parts’, to include humanoid figures like three-headed Geryon and the
Hecatoncheires (the hundred-handed giants enlisted by the Titans in the war
against the Olympians), and ‘Fewer body parts’ for the Cyclops and
Monopod. As is often the case in cross-cultural
story collections in which the classical tradition dominates tales from other
cultures, the number of creatures from the Greek and Roman mythology outnumbers
those from other traditions.
Nevertheless, it is very interesting to see the more familiar creatures
from the Greek myths in conjunction with those from other traditions (some of
whom I have never heard of).
There are other charts featuring
mythical creatures on the web (Kemp refers to this one created by
Unwin and Carline in 2009, which in turn prompted this more complex one), and Kemp has
also plotted his data on to a Metro Map, with different coloured branch lines
representing each species and their intersections. This way of approaching mythology could be criticised
for being somewhat reductive, in that it is concerned solely with these
creatures’ physical bodies, and not any other aspects of their mythology. It’s also clear from Kemp’s blog that it is
easy to get caught up in pedantic issues of categorisation (He asks whether the
Hydra is part lizard or snake? And the Chimaera has wings, but does it fly?) The stories in which these creatures feature
are not uniform or consistent, so it’s difficult, and unrealistic, to expect
that they can be neatly mapped into a tidy diagram. Kemp admits that he used his own discretion in
selecting the creatures, particularly in the hazy area between mythology and
religion (‘One person’s religion is another’s mythology’ he writes). If nothing
else, the Chart is a reminder of the way that the human imagination employs
ordinary elements in the creation of the fabulous and fantastical.
A number of the hybrid creatures featured
on the Chart also appear in Tobias Druitt’s Corydon
and the Sea of Monsters (2005). Medusa,
the Sphinx, the Harpy, the Hydra, and the Minotaur are included within a large
cast of mythological characters, alongside Pan, Artemis, Demeter, Persephone,
Perseus, Jason, Zeus, Hades and Kronos. The
text is a treatise on monstrosity, challenging preconceived definitions of
heroism and other celebrated traits. The
god Pan tells his son Corydon that the Olympian gods:
‘made men think that there was only one way to be beautiful,
only one way to be clever, only one way to be a real person – their way. Everything else they called monstrous.’ (87)
Born with one leg of a goat,
Corydon is cast out by his village and labelled pharmakos, the scapegoat who is sacrificed to ensure the wellbeing
of the community. He is captured by
pirates, who have amassed a collection of monsters to display in a freak
show. Corydon and Medusa engineer an
escape, and come to live with two other immortal Gorgons, Stheno and
Euryale. Medusa gives birth to baby boy,
and the group becomes a kind of family.
They join forces with the other monsters to defend themselves against
Perseus, who has raised an army with the support of his father Zeus. Perseus looks like a hero, but he is an
unappealing character, motivated by greed and crippled with insecurities. It is Corydon who displays true heroism, in
his encounters with the gods, his descent to the underworld, and in his support
of his friends.
While Perseus’ killing of Medusa remains one of the inviolable events of classical mythology, in other ways Druitt’s work is a radical reworking of the ancient tradition. In bringing together the monsters from many different myths, and investing them with subjectivity and humanity, this text explores mythical creatures in a more dynamic way than Kemp’s chart, which focuses solely on their physical features. Both texts, though, invite us to consider mythical monsters from a different perspective, and I am looking forward to seeing them both added to the Mythical Childhood survey.