Beached Az: Whale and Seagull meet Poseidon

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.

Beached Az: Cygull and Whaleborg

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.

–Elizabeth Hale

Sweepus Underum Carpetum–little bits of Latin in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing

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.

Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing

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…

–Elizabeth Hale

‘Everybody loves being Romans’–Roman Day, with Peppa Pig

I’ve seen quite a few Peppa Pig episodes in company with my niece and nephews who used to be extremely into the show. They’re moving on, but that doesn’t mean it’s over for me, especially not when a delightful clip like this one comes my way (thanks to Anne Rogerson!)

Peppa and George are hanging out with Grandpa Pig, when Granny Pig comes home from role-playing as Romans with her friends. Plonking a pair of spare centurion helmets on the kids’ heads, she teaches them how to march around crying ‘veni vidi vici,’ and helps them make a mosaic in a mud-puddle. When George doesn’t want to have a bath to get the mud off him, Granny Pig reminds him that the Romans loved baths. Eventually it’s time to go home. ‘Tempus fugit,’ they say, and Grandpa Pig gives the kids crowns of leaves to signify that they’re emperors. ‘veni vidi vici,’ says George, and everyone rolls around laughing.

Peppa and George love being Romans.

Everybody loves being Romans.

Role-playing grannies, centurious, emperors, tempus fugit, veni vidi vici, mosaics, baths, helmets and laurel wreaths. What more does one need to know about being a Roman, especially from Peppa Pig? I can’t think of more. This is a great little introduction to the ancient world–gently done, and in such a way as to lead kids to want to know more.

–Elizabeth Hale

Our Mythical Milestone

A short post to say that the Our Mythical Childhood survey has had a major milestone!

Our Mythical Childhood Survey

There are now 1001 entries lodged in the survey. This means: 1001 works of literature, film, storytelling and other forms of popular culture, all inspired by mythology of the ancient world. It means works by nearly 300 researchers, gathering material by over 1110 creators, from over 38 countries.

It means works by people from all sorts of places, with all sorts of ideas and approaches: material that is aimed mostly for young readers; material that aims to give expression to their interests and concerns.

It means a great deal of effort and work on the part of the team–gathering material, writing and reviewing entries, checking, proofing–making sure that the survey is rigorously produced so it is as useful as possible.

I’m very proud to be part of this project: it is conducted with the goals of inclusivity and openness, intellectual and creative inquiry, and it’s expressive of the best kind of collaborative endeavour.

Have a look at the survey: there’s something there for everyone. And if your favourite work is not yet mentioned… be in touch–we need to know, and to share…

Liz Hale

‘Some kids do climb steeper hills’–Barbara Dee, on Halfway Normal

I had a real treat the other day, reading American author Barbara Dee’s terrific novel for tween readers, Halfway Normal (2018). It’s about Nora, a middle-school kid who’s had some time out because she’s been very ill, suffering from leukemia. Returning to school, she wants above all to be normal, and for no one to know, or talk about, what she’s been going through. As she gets back into the swing of things, she discovers that’s not entirely possible, but gradually life sorts itself out around her, and she sorts herself out too, with help from her family and friends, and from her love of mythology. That’s my main reason of course for reading this book, though I do love a good coming-of-age novel. Nora’s a fan of the D’Aulaires, the European-American writers and illustrators of myth, whose collection D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths is a classic in American children’s literature. Nora finds parallels between her own experience in the ‘underworld’ of illness and recovery, and that of Persephone, the (teenage) goddess of the Spring, whose abduction by Hades, and whose life thereafter, half in the shade, and half in the light, symbolises the seasons.

Halfway Normal, by Barbara Dee; cover image by Jenna Stempel

In an interview, for the Barnes and Noble bookseller, Barbara discusses the book in terms of illness and recovery. She comments:

I’m hoping this book is both a mirror and a window—a window into the life of a kid facing (and overcoming) a serious challenge, and a mirror for kids who feel different for any reason. I recently did a workshop in which a kid announced, “No one feels normal in middle school.” I’m absolutely convinced that’s true. But I also think kids need to know that some kids do climb steeper hills.

The Challenges of Returning to Middle School as a Cancer Survivor: An Interview with Halfway Normal Author Barbara Dee (Bianca Turetsky; https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/kids/interview-barbara-dee/)

What does it mean to be, or feel, normal, when one’s normality has changed so much? How does one climb out of Hades when one has ingested its fruit? Dee’s use of mythology gives profound resonance to this lovely story, one that is likely to help all sorts of kids thinking about all sorts of challenges. Halfway Normal is a terrific novel: sensitive and thoughtful, funny and sweet. I wished I’d had Barbara Dee books to read when I was a kid, and I felt privileged to be able to write to her professionally, to interview her on her thoughts about mythology and its connection to children’s literature.

On with the interview!–Elizabeth Hale

What drew you to working with Classical Mythology in Halfway Normal?

As I considered the “halfway” quality of life after cancer, when you’re no longer ill but also not quite well, it led me to thinking about Persephone returning to earth. Even when she was back to her regular life, she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) let go of her experience in the Underworld–despite Demeter’s best efforts. The myth just seemed like the perfect metaphor for the “halfway” nature of what doctors call “re-entry.”

I was struck that D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths is the collection that Norah refers to. What led you to focusing on that particular collection?

It was the book I shared with my three kids when they were little. Beautiful retellings of the myths, ethereally illustrated.

The parallels between Norah’s journey into illness and out again and Persephone’s journey into and out of the Underworld are very striking, and indeed moving. What challenges did you face in drawing on that myth, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was accounting for Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds. If the myth is a way to account for life-threatening illness, how do you explain Persephone’s willingness to eat the food of the dead, and return to the “underworld” of disease? It’s not as if Persephone initially visited the Underworld by choice, so why would she choose to return after she was rescued? What I realized is that the myth is about wanting to validate all of one’s experience–the good and the bad. Norah’s parents, some adults at her school, and several friends and classmates keep trying to get Norah to move past her cancer, act like “it’s all behind her.” But that cruel and unfair descent into illness is part of who she is now, so she wants it to be present in her life on earth, even as she moves forward. As she says in her speech at the end: “The underworld is real. It’s not like it goes away just because you’re back on earth. It’s always there, part of the whole big universe. And now I knew that.” Through no fault of her own Norah, like Persephone, has had a brutal experience that stole her innocence, but also exposed her to darker truths others can’t comprehend.

Do you have a background in Classics (Latin or Greek at school, or classes at University?) What sources did you draw on? Are there any books (besides the D’Aulaires) that made an impact on you in this respect?

I was an English literature major in college, but I also read Ancient Egyptian and Mesoamerican myths for pleasure.

We usually ask ‘Did you think about how Classical Antiquity would translate for young readers,’ but it seems to me that you handled this very carefully in presenting the myths through Norah’s interest and Ms Farrell’s classroom discussions. How did you strike the balance between inspiration and education?

It’s always tricky to present material for a young audience that may not have had prior exposure. You never want to be didactic, or you’ll lose them, but you can’t assume they’ll follow along without some explanation or context-setting. I had a similar challenge with Star-Crossed (2017), which relied heavily on Romeo & Juliet. But working with D’Aulaires, I didn’t have to explain (or translate) Shakespeare’s language, as I needed to do with Star-Crossed. One of the pleasures of working with myths is that they’re often written very simply.

Many writers present the Persephone myth as expressing a teenager’s desire to experience things her mother would rather she not think about just yet (love, sexuality, independence), and present Hades as an alluring shy-guy. I’m wondering what you think Norah would make of that interpretation? Did you think about the different aspects of the myth as you worked on presenting it to young readers?

Once many years ago I heard a child psychologist describing a particular boy’s journey into the remote, moody world of adolescence as a version of the Persephone myth, so I think I probably had that description percolating somewhere in my mind. It’s such a resonant myth, isn’t it? Every kid who grows up and separates from a parent is Persephone, and every anxious, loving parent desperate to reconnect is Demeter.

Are you planning any further forays into Classical material?

Not at the moment, but the myths are always there, waiting to be rediscovered.

Thank you!