IJB Shout-out

Antipodean Odyssey goes to the International Jugendsbibliotek.

Blutenburg Castle on a rare cloudy day.

Imagine a 13th-century castle stuffed to the brim with children’s books. With a swan named Ludwig guarding the moat outside, and swallows nesting in the entryway.

Imagine spending time in a serenely orderly reading room, surrounded by the best scholarship in children’s literature, and selecting picture books, pop-up books, novels, collections, and more from the hundreds of thousands of texts in the catalogue to the point that you can hardly see over the piles that arrive on your desk.

This was my happy lot in the past two weeks. I pored through the catalogue and, thanks to the help of the wonderful librarians in the lesesaal (reading room), found book after book after book that will play a part in the Our Mythical Survey, and form part of the Guide I’m writing with Miriam Riverlea.

I found myself enchanted and distracted and led in all sorts of directions, from the aesthetic to the narrative. But I held firm, and did my best to gather some exquisite works for inclusion and discussion. Here’s three wow moments from many!

Ariadne’s Goose

 My first wow moment was opening ‘Le Fil D’Ariane,’ by Dominique Feraud, which retells the story of Theseus, the Minotaur, and Ariadne’s Golden Thread. Its subtitle reads: ‘ou jouer le jeu pour vivre le mythe’ (1994). (Ariadne’s Thread: or, play the game to live the myth, but it sounds better in French!)

As you read, or listen, you can play along on a games board that is included with the book: the Game of the Goose (one of Europe’s oldest boardgames, and worthy of much further exploration). The idea of a book that is a game isn’t new, but such a beautiful experience reveals that picture books are an aesthetic experience, and also that reading and play can be intimately intertwined.

Carte in Tavola

My second wow moment was opening two more boxes. These ones contained Ulisses, la Maga Circe e le Sirene by Lucia Scuderi, and Teseo e Arianna by Nicoletta Ceccoli, published by Italian company Fatatrac. These are a series called ‘carte in tavola,’ where the words are on one side of a card, and the picture is on the other side. As you read, you then put the card on the table, picture side up, to build up a snaking rectangle that forms a larger picture. Something about playing with the story as you read it, tell it, or hear it, is quite profound. It reminds me a little of the Japanese Kamishabai approach to storytelling. (I’ll be talking about these lovely works in Warsaw in a couple of weeks.)

Hummers and Stingers

 My third and biggest wow was to find that the excellent staff of the IJB had prepared a superb exhibition on the subject of insects:  Summende Staatenbauer und Pikende Plagegeister: Insekten und Spinnentiere in Kinder- und Jugend Büchern, a title that almost defeated my high school German, but with a little help from the web, basically translates as Buzzing Builders and Piercing Pests: Insects and Spinning animals in Children’s and Young Adults’ Literature.

I was led up the stairs to the exhibition room where I discovered not only that they had illuminated the mythological elements of insect-related storytelling (La Fontaine, Aesop, Toni Morrison), but that they had displayed a whole host of children’s books, from all over the world, devoted to understanding and sharing the lives of insects.

So here’s a shout-out to this wonderful exhibition, and a hearty recommendation for anyone passing through, well, anywhere, to take a detour to Munich and the joys of Schloss Blutenburg and the Internationale Jugendsbibliotek.

— Elizabeth Hale



Why treehouses are all the rage in children’s books

File 20180417 101517 12tcqk2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
There is a rich tradition of trees in mythology.

Elizabeth Hale, University of New England and Lynnette Lounsbury, Avondale College of Higher Education

Two of Australia’s most popular children’s storytellers live in a treehouse. It’s a Thirteen-Storey one, at least it started out that way. The storytellers are Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths, responsible for an array of children’s comedies, who live in a fantasy treehouse paradise. There they write and illustrate their stories, distracted by the lemonade fountains, see-through shark-infested swimming pool and a marshmallow gun that shoots directly into your mouth.

Since its arrival on the literary scene in 2011, this Treehouse has grown by 13 storeys at a time. The next edition will be 104 storeys. The books have sold over 3 million copies in Australia alone. The treehouse now contains a detective agency, a mashed potato and gravy train and a machine that makes money… or honey… depending on what you’d prefer. These delights interrupt Andy and Terry as they write for their publisher, Mr Bignose. Indeed the treehouse functions as a metaphor for the writing process … its storeys provide food for the stories produced inside.

Treehouses feature often in children’s stories. In Dav Pilkey’s popular Captain Underpants series, the heroes George and Harold write comics in their treehouse and retreat to it when things get out of hand, to regroup and create their way out of trouble. There are, of course, Tolkien’s Ents, the walking trees who fight on the side of good against Sauron and his army. Or Dr Seuss’s Lorax, who guards the Truffula trees from devastation. Ents and the Lorax are guardians of the ecosystem. When they act we know that something is badly out of kilter – in these cases in the fight between good and evil.

Mention Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories, meanwhile, and many a grown-up gets misty-eyed. Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series has been going strong for 25 years, and has nearly 100 titles. Carter Higgins’s Everything You Need for a Treehouse helps you get kitted out for your own woodland home. And mythology is full of trees.

The World Tree in a 17th century Icelandic manuscript.
Wikimedia Commons

The World Tree of ancient Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, is similar to the thirteen-storey treehouse, linking the nine realms of the world (of fire, of ice, of elves, of gods, of fertility, of giants, of dwarves, of humans, and of the dishonorable dead). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when King Eresichthyon of Thessaly cut down the Greek Goddess Demeter’s favourite oak tree she teamed up with her sister Fames to torment him with a hunger so eternal that he eventually ate himself.

The Russian witch, Baba Yaga, lives in a mobile treehouse on a chicken foot, like an old-fashioned Grey Nomad. The Biblical serpent tempted Eve to taste fruit of the tree of knowledge. And many European forests are inhabited by tree creatures, such as sylphs and dryads, eco-friendly creatures that appear in fantasy literature such as Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher.

So it’s not surprising that living in the trees gives Andy and Terry and George and Harold access to fantasy spaces, and to magic and mystery. A technical term for this is liminality: in a liminal space, you are on the borders of things, or thresholds (the word come from the Latin for threshold, limen). If you live in a tree, you are up in the air, but connected to the earth.

At heart, most myths respond to fundamental practical needs. Tree house stories recognise that children need time in nature. For generations of urban children, these books offer a fantasy of unsupervised creative spaces where they can control their own adventures, face dangers that test them and engage with others in a less restricted way.

Baba Yaga by Alexandre Benois.
Wikimedia Commons

In Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature Rich Life (2016), author Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature deficit disorder” to describe the human costs of alienation from the natural world. Opportunities for play in nature have dramatically declined in urbanised societies and with them, benefits such as creativity, problem-solving and emotional and intellectual development.

Writers like Denton and Griffiths recognise the child’s need for nature. So does Tina Matthews, in whose Waiting for Later a tree provides company for a child whose family is too busy to spend time with her. And so does mythology which regularly takes characters into nature, to confront, to challenge or to come to terms with life.

The ConversationWhile the Thirteen-Storey Treehouse may not be directly inspired by Yggdrasil or Demeter’s Oak, or hop about like Baba Yaga’s hut, it understands the relation between creativity and time in the woods, taking part in a grand literary tradition that goes as far back as myth itself.

Elizabeth Hale, Senior Lecturer in English and Writing (children’s literature), University of New England and Lynnette Lounsbury, Lecturer in Communications and History, Avondale College of Higher Education

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.