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!
It was Anna Mik, PhD student at the University of Warsaw, who introduced me to the work of Polish artist Jan Bajtlik, whose magnificent book of mazes presents the myths of ancient Greece as a set of intriguing mazes. Everyone in the myths is in a maze of a different kind–Odysseus, Heracles, Atalanta, Zeus–they’re all there. Maze as story, story as maze, life as maze. Here, Anna discusses the role of the maze, the thread, and life in the time of COVID as a labyrinth that we are all finding our ways through–Elizabeth Hale
A journey through a labyrinth can be a dreadful experience. It might have been a true horror for Theseus walking through Dedalus’s maze with the anticipation of meeting the Minotaur just around the corner. For the Minotaur, on the other side, the labyrinth was a prison, where he waited for the human offerings and ultimately was killed by the mythical hero. For Ariadne who gave Theseus a thread leading him towards the safe exit after killing her brother, the labyrinth was a mysterious and confusing space, where love and fear were accumulated and made her feel conflicted.
The mythical maze was never only an architectural wonder. It was also a metaphor of danger, coming of age, uncertainty, a struggle between death and life. It survived the centuries in stories, visual depictions and artistic visions. And even though it is so familiar to us, this motif does not cease to surprise us to this day. Even if we live in an era of postmodernism, often perceived as a maze itself.
There are multiple examples of famous labyrinths in popular culture. Thousands of years after the Minotaur (allegedly) was slain, in the 1986 film Labyrinth, 16-year-old Sarah travels through the labyrinth. Trapped inside the world of her fantasies, she walks thorough paths representing her troubling adolescence. (she meets a lot of weird creatures on her way, paths change their courses, sometimes they are even upside-down) In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the titled protagonist has to face the horror of a maze in the Triwizard Tournament.
“The towering hedges cast black shadows across the path, and, whether because they were so tall and thick, or because they had been enchanted, they sound of the surrounding crowd was silenced the moment they entered the maze. Harry felt almost as though he was underwater again.” p. 539
In both of these works, mazes are not ‘stable’ and easy to pass through – they constantly change and surprise heroes and heroines with new turns and creatures living in it. They play with characters’ imagination, push their boundries, and distort cognitive perception. Thus, it rises up the question – is there anything good about the labyrinth at all?
Bajtlik’s solution: Greek Myths and Mazes
One Polish artist gives hope that there is something more to the ancient maze than horror and anxiety. Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes (English translation, Walker Studio, 2019) was published in Poland in 2018 under a slightly different title: Nić Ariadny. Mity i labirynty [Ariadne’s Thread: Myths and Labyrinths]. It is a large format book in which double-page spreads present different stories from Greek myth: each one a different labyrinth leading a reader through various myths, locations, and ancient Greek phenomena. In such a manner, Greek Myths and Mazes is a great example of an interactive book for children, encouraged by the author to get through the maze, which has been marked with an entrance and an exit, and follow stories along the way. The pages are also an artistic showcase, as Bajtlik has conveyed complex and multi-layer stories through equally rich illustrations.
However, what seems to be the most imperative, is the implication that each element of the ancient world is a labyrinth in itself, with all the unexpected turns, monsters waiting just around the corner, and the big uncertainty – will the hero or the heroine find their way out and fulfil their journey? The story of Odysseus would be a great example of such a labyrinth, through which the hero travels for 10 years, uncertain of his fate and gods’ favours. He does not know what waits ahead of him, he meets dead ends and turns leading him to monsters, he loses his crew on the way. Nonetheless, he thrives, bearing in his heart and mind the image of the exit – his beloved home, Ithaca.
Jan Bajtlik works with the labyrinth as a cognitive tool that allows the child to read the myth not linearly, as in a ‘classic’ text. The path leads the reader in all different ways, allowing them to immerse in the story. They might get the wrong turn, walk through the danger, or take a dangerous route from which it will no longer be possible to withdraw (as in Hephaestus’ forge). The mythical labyrinth may also surprise the traveller with a beautiful view, a funny picture or, finally, a happy ending (as on Aeaea, Circe’s island)
All things considered, a feature that would seem the most vital is book’s metaphorical aspect. Being lost in a maze, just like being lost in a myth, perfectly reflects the shape of human existence, its impermanence, complexity, horror, and beauty. The book can affect the reader, not only a child, in an unusual way, especially during the 2020 lockdown. Isolation, danger, uncertainty, fear of the unknown – all these elements connect the world of ancient labyrinth and COVID-19 reality. If the ancient mazes have been able to gives any kind of hope, just like Jan Bajtlik, they would certainly give us a way out. Then again, only if Ariadne was there to bestow upon us an invaluable thread. This may lead us to finding in ourselves Ariadne, ready to help us find a solution to the most dreadful situation. Being an Ariadne would mean being hopeful, despite the hopeless reality.
What’s in a title? From Ariadne’s Thread to Greek Myths and Mazes
As I have mentioned earlier, the English version of Bajtlik’s book was published in 2019 under a slightly different title from its Polish original. It made me wonder – does this change make any difference in book’s reception? After all, it seems that “Ariadne’s Thread”puts a certain kind of emphasis on the role of the heroine in Theseus’ success. Without the thread provided by Minos’ daughter, the young hero would probably not get out of the maze. What is more, the thread marks the path through a labyrinth thanks to which a hero does not make a mistake of taking the same wrong turn twice. Within the narrative structure of Bajtlik’s story, the thread plays a vital role as well. Thus, it is a shame that neither Ariadne nor her thread appear in the English title.
Nonetheless, Bajtlik’s Greek and Myths were translated also to Spanish, Catalan, French, German – in all of these editions “Ariadne’s thread” has been maintained in the title on the cover. Let’s read it as a good sign. There is a great hope for the Ariadne’s Thread to get us through these uncertain times. After all, nowadays, it is accurate to consider reality being just another maze.
As a child, I loved the stories of British-American writer, Joan Aiken. I still do. One of my favourites was ‘The Ghostly Governess.” (1953) In it, Mark and Harriet Armitage, on a family holiday in an old house by the sea, find themselves haunted by the ghost of an elderly governess, Miss Allison. She keeps them up at night, learning maths and deportment, history and Latin.
Miss Allison’s ideas of education are decidedly Victorian. While Harriet lies on her back-board to improve her posture, Mark learns Latin prepositions:
“Mark, let me hear you recite. You should have it by rote now.”
“A, ab, absque,” he began.
“Never let me see you recite like that, Mark. Hands behind your back, feet in the first position, head up.” Mark obeyed peevishly.
“Now begin again.”
“A, ab, absque, coram, de,
Palam, clam, cum, ex and e
tenus, sine, pro, in prae,
Ablative with these we spy.”
“Very good, Mark, though your pronunciation is a little modern,” she said. “You may open that blue tin and have a caraway biscuit.”
The children are not fazed by Ms Allison’s appearance, as fantastic occurrences happen quite often to the Armitages. (Their adventures appear in several short story collections, and have recently been collected in one volume, The Serial Garden.) Together, they search in the attic and find a copy of an old Latin Grammar, and work on their prepositions. “Not too many people have learned Latin preposition s from a ghost. That’s something,” says Harriet.
In Aiken’s world, ghosts are generally troubled by something from their life, and Miss Allison is no exception. When Mark stumbles over the dates of the rulers of England, and misdates Queen Anne’s accession as 1700, instead of 1702, the governess bursts into tears:
“Cedric, you wicked boy,” she sobbbed, “will you never get it right? how can you expect to be a success in life, if you don’t know your dates? And you going into the Navy, too.’ She hid her face in her hands, but through them they could hear her say, “I’m getting so old. How can I die happy if that boy doesn’t know the date of Queen Anne? All the others learned it.”
The children, who are getting tired from all their midnight lessons, realise something is amiss, and they seek advice from the owner of the house, a retired Admiral who lives in a cottage nearby. It turns out he is the Cedric who could not remember Queen Anne’s dates. They reunite him with the ghostly governess, who puts the question to him:
“Just you tell me one thing,” she said, drawing herself up and giving him a piercing look. “When did Queen Anne come to the throne?”
The children gazed at him anxiously, but they need not have worried. He had learned his lesson this time.
“Seventeen-two,” he said promptly, and they sighed with relief.
Miss Allison burst into tears of joy.
“I might have known it,” she sobbed. “My good boy. Why, now you know that, you might even become an admiral, and I can die happy.”
And as they watched her, suddenly, flick! like a candle, she went out, and there was no one in the room but their three selves.
This odd little story has stayed with me. I liked it then, and I like it now: the combination of Victorian schoolroom and post-war British seaside holiday, the resourceful children and the dedicated governess. Aiken’s daughter, Lizza, has written about it (and Aiken’s remarkable literary output, including novels for adults, children, mysteries, ghost stories, fantasies and more) here.
And it’s part of my Latin-life-story, such as it is: I remember, for instance, puzzling over the prepositions. What on earth were they? They must mean something. At first, this was because I had not learned Latin, and did not know what a preposition was; later, because this kind of rote memorisation was a foreign world to my school Latin classes, with extremely battered copies of The Approach to Latin (a 1952 textbook), reel-to-reel recordings of the Cambridge Latin Course, and a range of creative projects such as play-writing, Roman feasts, and reading competitions.
Nothing ghostly about it–indeed, the emphasis was on making things as lively as possible in our small classroom. But something about “The Ghostly Governess” must have stayed with me, because I was always aware that with learning Latin we were part of a tradition much older than we were, much older than our teacher and our school–I wondered about the kids whose graffiti-ed names festooned our battered desks and grammar books, and had a sense that the works we studied had been selected for us many years previously. Indeed The Approach to Latin was published in 1952, around about the same time as “The Ghostly Governess.”
And how wonderful is Miss Allison–a teacher whose dedication goes beyond the grave. I am not sure I would have liked to have been taught by her–especially not to have done deportment and embroidery under her gaze, but I do think that if she had been my teacher, I would, to this day, know my prepositions by rote.
Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing (2000) is a classic of Australian picture book art. It’s the story of a boy who is out and about looking for additions to his bottle-top collection, who sees a ‘thing’ on the beach–a great big, red sore-thumb of a creature, half coffee-pot, half-lobster, totally different from everyone and everything around it. The boy, being a boy, and thus perhaps open to moments of spontaneous creatiity, plays with the Lost Thing until dusk, then takes it home with him. His indifferent parents barely notice, but the boy realises the Thing needs to find a home of its own, and the pair set out on a quest that takes them through the city. It’s A dystopia: an anonymous industrialised city, where no one looks at each other, and communication takes place in formulae and rubber stamps.
It looks like the city of The Lost Thing is a very dull place indeed, and dullness is all-pervading and inescapable. The boy, for instance, is involved in collecting bottle-tops when he sees the Thing, and immediately returns to his collection once he has solved its problem: the tragedy of the story is that the Thing is never accepted, integrated, or even recognised by the society it stumbles into–its happy ending is to be sent back to where it comes from, taken care of by The Department of Odds and Ends, which the boy consults to find out where the Thing belongs.
The Federal Department of Odds and Ends helps the boy sweep the Thing under the carpet (or into the closet), in accordance with its motto, ‘sweepus underum carpetae.’) The boy narrates how he and the Thing make their way through the city until they find a mysterious doorway to a magical world, full of bright, colourful, curvy beings–the antithesis to the dull, angular city.
That’s it. That’s the story. Not especially profound, I know, but I never said it was. And don’t ask me what the moral is. I mean, I can’t say that the thing actually belonged in the place where it ended up. In fact, none of the the things there really belonged. They all seemed happy enough though, so maybe that didn’t matter. I don’t know. . .
Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing
It’s a slippery little story–the boy sliding out from any sense of knowledge or understanding of his actions, or of the Thing. Is he helping it? Is he shoving it out of the way? Is he solving a problem, or complicit in a continued set of injustices? Don’t ask the narrator. The subtitle of The Lost Thing is ‘A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to,’ ironically suggesting that those who don’t read it, or notice the story, are those who are in most need of a dose of creative thinking.
A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to…
But for those of use who ignore more important things, there is a great deal in The Lost Thing to enjoy observing. And for me, on my quest to chase up the Classical elements in Australian literature, there are the mottoes: each one from a different ‘government’ department. There’s The Federal Department of Information (ignorare regulatum); the Federal Department of Tubes and Pipes (plumbiferus ductus). The Federal Department of Economics (consumere ergo sum), The Federal Department of Censorship (illuminare prohibitus), and of course, The Federal Department of Odds and Ends (sweepus underum carpetae).
Tan’s sly sense of humour is in full view in details like these. These little dog-Latin tags are the only Classical elements that I’ve found in The Lost Thing. And they’re beautifully appropriate for the society of Tan’s novel–a long way from the vivid extravagance of Classical myth–the Classicism of branding and advertising, of signs and labels, of bureaucracy and pencil-pushers–Latin, the language of Virgil and Ovid, put into the service of administrative meaninglessness, perfect for a society of grey men, women, and boys, who look up only briefly from their bottle-top collections to notice the glorious Lost Things of the world, too busy to realise that they themselves are lost…
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.