Our Mythical Childhood–Education…Children’s and Young Adults’ Education Inspired by Classical Antiquity

We’re all working hard, in the Our Mythical Childhood project–and none more so than the team from Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. Lisa Maurice and Ayelet Peer have been developing the Our Mythical Childhood Education survey. It’s a gorgeous site, where they survey a host of educational resources in the teaching of Classical mythology. From textbooks to AV material, worksheets, blogs, exam material, websites, quizzes, lesson plans, syllabi, and the always intriguing category ‘Other,’ this database provides useful and fascinating information for teachers, students, parents, and scholars.

There are currently 100+ items in the survey, and I encourage you to look around.

http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey

Isn’t it attractive! I encourage you to look around!

Before you do (or after you have done!), I also encourage you to read Lisa Maurice’s thoughts about the OME project–I’ve interviewed her below…

Children’s and Young Adults’ Education
Inspired by Classical Antiquity–interview with Lisa Maurice.

Lisa Maurice is Associate Professor in Classical Studies at Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. She’s published a host of scholarly work, including The Teacher in Ancient Rome (Lexington, 2013), and Screening Divinity
(Edinburgh University Press, June 2019),. She’s also the editor of three volumes in the Brill Metaforms series on the reception of the ancient world in popular culture: The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature: Heroes and Eagles (Brill, 2015); Rewriting the Ancient World: Greeks, Romans, Jews and Christians in Modern Popular Fiction (Brill, 2017), and The Reception of Ancient Virtues and Vices in Modern Popular Culture (Brill, 2017). Shortly, her new edited collection Our Mythical Education, will be published through the Our Mythical Childhood project.

Thanks for taking my questions, Lisa! I’d like to start by asking you what inspired you to develope Our Mythical Education (OME)?

As you know, OME is part of the wider project, OMC, which aims at developing a pioneering approach to the reception of Classical Antiquity in children’s and young adults’ contemporary culture.   Myth is often the first meeting point that a child has with the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome and it is found in a huge variety of educational systems worldwide. 

Most studies or research into how the ancient world is taught focus almost exclusively on the study of the classical languages, which are often thought of as ‘real classics’.  Yet the powerful and gripping stories of classical mythology, which continue to fascinate in myriad cultures and over varied societies, have been frequently been used in fact as vehicles through which to teach or improve other skills, such as literacy, or put across ideological messages.  I go into this further, and many examples of it can be seen, in my forthcoming edited book, Our Mythical Education,which is (very excitingly!) now in the print layout stage at Warsaw University Press, and should be published in the coming months.  So, despite the fact that that little attention has really been paid to it in educational research, the belief that classical myth has played a fundamental role in so many societies and school systems was the initial inspiration behind the overall OME project.  Likewise, the desire to collect, examine and share the amazing materials I was sure existed, and were being used in a range of creative and effective ways, was a main impetus behind the creation of the database.

What do you hope that OME will achieve?

I hope that it will demonstrate just how central Classical myth has been in education, in so many places, and also how versatile a tool it is educationally speaking.  The tales continue to captivate children and youth (and adults!), but they are far more than just ‘stories’, and the complexity of ideas and emotions buried within the narratives have such potential; they are like a fuel source that can still be tapped in so many ways.  I hope that OME will help this potential be realised and will lead to the dissemination and expansion of existing resources.   And particularly, now that so many people are looking for online materials to use in teaching thanks to Covid-19, that they will use the database, and add to it as much as possible.

What sort of material are you looking for/choosing to write about?

We are interested in anything that uses Classical myth, in its broadest sense, within an educational context and framework – we have worksheets, textbooks, audio-visual sources, quizzes and exams, lesson plans, syllabi, blogs, websites, games, comics and more.  This includes materials used in the teaching of Latin and ancient Greek, and in subjects like social studies, history, literature, art, drama etc., and in multiple languages  The possibilities are very wide-ranging!

Can you tell us about some particularly interesting or inspiring items from the OME survey?

I think the sheer breadth of items is what inspires me most.  For example we have workplans and powerpoints from our project working with autistic children here in Israel run by Ayelet Peer under the auspices of our ACCLAIM network (see Susan Deacy’s blogpost on this ). This is an amazing venture, which uses the classical myths to help the students understand and cope with complex emotions, and demonstrates the creative ways in which mythology can be used in education. 

In a different vein, I love movies, and particularly Disney’s Hercules, so I have a soft spot for resources that work with this, like the unit curriculum which describes the 12 labours of Hercules and includes discussion prompts about the myth and how it compares to Hercules in popular culture, specifically the Disney movie.  And now that a remake of this film is happening, I am very curious to see what new resources will be developed when it comes out! 

Magda van Tillburg’s ancient mythis in comic book form…

Finally as a teacher of ancient languages, the comic books by Magda van Tilburg are fabulous – they were new to me, but they present ancient myths in the original languages, along with English translation, in comic book format.  There’s Circe (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/64), Dido and Aeneas (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/59), Ares and Aphrodite (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/63) and Phaethon (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/61), as well as a few more we haven’t yet added.  They are free and available online – what an amazing resource, and one I will definitely be using with my own Latin students.

How can people be in touch with submissions or items?

I thought you’d never ask!  You can contact my wonderful colleague Ayelet Peer on ayelet.peer@biu.ac.il and she will send you the short form to fill out and answer any of your questions.  Or email me on lisa.maurice@biu.ac.il. We are ready and waiting eagerly to hear from you!

Thanks! I’m off to consult the survey now–especially to find out more about the comics! — Liz Hale

Funny Bones–Geoffrey McSkimming’s Archaeological Adventures

Geoffrey McSkimming’s the author of the dashing Cairo Jim series, which I’ll be talking about on Saturday at the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this week.  In fact, the conference has begun, but while my colleagues are considering how children’s literature engages with the history of classical antiquity, I’m stuck in my hotel room nursing a lovely cold, and hacking cough.  I sound a bit like Cairo Jim’s learned friend, Brenda the Wonder-Camel, who intones quaooo whenever she has a deep thought. 

Anyway, as part of my preparation for this conference, I was recently delighted to interview Geoffrey, whose books are really entertaining and funny, and show how fun and scholarship can coexist in interesting stories for children of all ages.  And I’m looking forward to sharing his work with the Warsaw audience.  Geoffrey’s work can be found at geoffreymcskimming.com, cairojim.com, and 9diamondspress.com.  And the good news is that a new Cairo Jim novel is due out soon…

Here’s what we talked about. 

What drew you to writing archaeological adventure stories?  How did you develop your particular literary style/idiom/aesthetic for your works inspired by Classical Antiquity?

I’ve always loved history and story, especially the classic myths. I was bitten by the Egyptology bug when I was a child and years later I took my first overseas trip, venturing to Africa and finishing up in Egypt. Here I was overwhelmed by the history and the mystery of this country and, after getting sunstroke in the Valley of the Kings, I came up with the world of Cairo Jim and his friends and adventures.

The Cairo Jim chronicles proved to be an excellent avenue for me to explore many of the classical myths, and also those pockets of history where things have become forgotten. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to put my own interpretations on what might have happened in the past, when we are now unsure of the actual events.

When I wrote the Cairo Jim stories I visited many of the locations and ancient sites featured in the chronicles. I spent countless hours in archaeological museums and wandering around crumbling ruins; visiting remote jungle areas and isolated Greek islands; climbing pyramids in Mexico and scaling the insides of them in Egypt. I lived and breathed the air breathed by the characters in my stories and I immersed myself in the ancient tales and myths that took place at these places. In these ways I suppose my literary style and idiom developed, with a healthy dose of outrageous humour and relentless irreverence which have defined much of my life.

GMSK Author pic Final © 9 diamonds press
Geoffrey McSkimming

 

The Cairo Jim books — 19 in all — were written and published over a period of nearly twenty years, and during that time I was able to explore many concepts to do with history and legend. Classical antiquity fuelled much of the world of Cairo Jim; it’s a world to which he’s passionately devoted. I think the series found its legs with the fourth story, Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods, which explores the concept of the disposability of big concepts, in this case being an entire belief system. What happened to cause the people of the time to abandon the Titan gods and take up the Olympians? It’s a mystery that Cairo Jim stumbles upon and one that he must solve before the world as we know it comes crashing down …

Where does the inspiration for Brenda the Wonder Camel come from?  (She is my favourite character—I aspire to be as good a scholar as she).

Brenda developed firstly as a plot device: she was an excellent way to inject information into the narrative (a Wonder Camel who, as a young calf, accidentally consumed all twenty-seven volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and then retained every bit of knowledge from those tomes is worth her weight in gold!). But it was when I visited a school, shortly after Cairo Jim in Search of Martenarten was published, that I realised how valuable a character – indeed, how valuable all characters in a story – could be. A girl at this school, a student in Year Five, said to me that she really enjoyed the story, but there was one bit she didn’t like. It was the bit when Jim and Doris the macaw went down underground to enter the tomb of the pharaoh Martenarten, leaving Brenda behind, up on the ground. This young girl said to me (and the words changed the course of the chronicles): ‘In my experience, it’s always the quiet ones who get left out.’ Her words struck at my very soul, and I realised for the first time how important characters are to readers. Because of that girl, Brenda the Wonder Camel developed through the years with a wisdom and a quiet, strong presence she may not otherwise have had.

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?

Because, with classical / ancient myths, the stories are rich and powerful and they’re filled with great characters. And they’re not afraid to push boundaries and show scallywags behaving naughtily. I also love sharing other stories and other writers with younger readers; hence Doris the macaw is frequently quoting from Shakespeare (and Mr. Shakespeare even appears in Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror). And Phyllis Wong encounters Mary Shelley and the whole world of the creation of Frankenstein in Phyllis Wong and the Girl who Danced with Lightning. I love literary resonance, and sharing these things – I find that exciting. Stories can build on stories, and if that happens respectfully, the foundations of storytelling can only become stronger.

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 in this respect?

When I started writing the chronicles, the internet wasn’t around, so my research was undertaken in libraries and museums and through as much travel as I could afford. I read many old volumes of classical myth and legend, which I still have in my collection. Also on my reading lists were books by explorers like Richard Halleburton, F W Schnitger, Percy Fawcett and others. And Evelyn Waugh’s travel books were a source of inspiration, especially for the times during which he made his trips.

Did you think about how aspects Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?

Not greatly. I suppose the fact that so many of the stories from Classical Antiquity are such strong and entertaining stories, and that they still hold the attention after so many centuries, means that the stories continue to have real currency, and are ripe to be interpreted in stories such as mine.

One thing I try to share with young readers is my experiences of being in the places where the ancient stories played out: describing, for example, the smells of an ancient place and the appearance of the crumbling ruins as evocatively as I can, so that the readers can get a vivid sense of the setting and thus place themselves in the story, ancient or modern. In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus I recreated the House of the Perfumer at Pompeii after spending a lot of quiet time visitng the site, and I tried to evoke the ancient and the modern mystery of that place through the descriptions.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?

The series I’m writing at present, the Phyllis Wong Mysteries, do use classical material in some of the stories. In Phyllis Wong and the Waking of the Wizard, the legends of Myrddin (Merlin) come to life when a sinister figure from the past tries to lure the great wizard into the present to bring down civilisation as we know it …

Anything else you think we should know?

Two things: 1. A brand new Cairo Jim story is coming soon, and 2. licorice and Gruyère cheese don’t go well together.

Noted!  Thanks very much, Geoffrey—we look forward to the new CJ novel.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

Hopeless Heroes–interview with Stella Tarakson

Last week I had the pleasure to meet Stella Tarakson, the author of the delightful Hopeless Heroes series.  They’re chapter books for primary school kids, and feature the adventures of a boy called Tim, who accidentally invokes the hero Heracles, when he breaks his mother’s favourite vase.  Mayhem and mischief ensue–Heracles is strong but needs direction, and Hera and Hermes are continually meddling.  (The first few books are written up in the Our Mythical Childhood survey …) 

Tarakson is from Sydney, Australia.  Her parents emigrated from Greece, and she talked with me about how the Greek myths resonated for her as a child, and now as a storyteller.  It was fascinating to hear her thoughts, and to think about the different ways that Greek myth travels around the world–to the Southern Hemisphere and back again.  Tarakson’s books are published by a British publisher, though I like to think a bit of Aussie quirk has made its way into them through her gently irreverent take on the heroic legends.

Hopeless Heroes, by Stella Tarakson, illustrated by Nick Roberts
Hopeless Heroes, by Stella Tarakson, illustrated by Nick Roberts

What drew you to writing the Hopeless Heroes stories?  How did you develop your particular literary style/idiom/aesthetic for your works inspired by Classical Antiquity? 

Being the daughter of Greek migrants, I’ve grown up on a steady diet of Greek mythology. When I was very young, my father used to tell me many of the tales – I suppose he was continuing the great oral tradition of our ancestors! Books came next, and I’m lucky to still have most of them. My parents were very keen to pass their culture and identity on to their children, especially in a new country far from home. Now that my own children are growing, I also feel the need to ‘pass it on’, keeping the link alive for future generations. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to share these stories with a wider audience, and it’s wonderful to have readers from all around the world enjoying my books!  My literary style is not traditional, though. I’ve also grown up with a love of British comedy, which comes out quite strongly in the Hopeless Heroes series.

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?

The myths continue to resonate with young audiences because we’ve never lost our fascination with monsters and heroes. Greek mythology is filled with passion and excitement, the characters are larger than life, and there are continuing parallels with our lives today. The human condition hasn’t changed in thousands of years and I don’t think it ever will.

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 in this respect? 

I don’t have a classical education – I have degrees in Economics and Law from the University of Sydney – but I’ve always been interested in the classics. Once I started writing Hopeless Heroes, I decided I wanted to learn more. I’ve re-enrolled at USyd part-time and I’ve been studying ancient history and classical archaeology. It’s wonderful to be able to study something purely out of interest! My main source is Barry Powell’s Classical Myth published by Pearson. I also like the website www.theoi.com. And before I go on, I’ve got to say how thrilled I am to be invited to be part of your Mythical Childhood study. It’s an honour.

Did you think about how aspects of Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers? 

As you know, many Greek myths are rather Adult Only. I had to think very carefully about how to be age-appropriate, while staying as true to the myths as possible. I avoided the bloodier tales, and edged carefully around sexual issues. For instance, Hera hates Hercules (yes, I had to use the more familiar Roman name) because she’s jealous of his beautiful mother. Which is true. However, I didn’t come right out and say why! Even so, children learn a lot about Greek history and mythology from the books. Many teachers in the UK have been reading them to their classes as part of the class studies. I’m actually teaching by stealth!

How do you go about working with the comic/comedic aspects of classical antiquity?

I’ve incorporated comedy by accentuating the flaws of the Greek heroes and by placing them in unexpected situations. For example, Hercules is super-strong but not exactly super-smart. In book 1, which is set in the modern day, he insists on using skills he developed while performing the Twelve Labours. Sadly they don’t work so well when it comes to tackling housework and school bullies.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?

Yes, I’m definitely planning further forays! I’ve already had a few plays published in the Australian Readers Theatre, (Blake Education), that combine the classics with Australian history. I’ve written The Flying Finish, where Pegasus and Bellerophon enter the Melbourne Cup; The Gold Rush Touch, where a goldfields prospector succumbs to the Midas Touch; and Pandora’s Ballot Box, where a young girl encounters the suffragette movement. They bring the classics to life in a new way, and show that they are still very relevant and relatable today!

Anything else you think we should know?

The Hopeless Heroes books aren’t just retelling of the myths – that’s been done many times before. The stories begin when 10-year-old Tim Baker accidentally breaks an ancient amphora, and discovers that Hercules had been trapped inside it for thousands of years. Once repaired, the vase allows Tim to travel back to Ancient Greece. He befriends Hercules’ daughter Zoe (an addition to the traditional myths), and together they encounter famous heroes, escape bizarre monsters, solve baffling puzzles, and even defy the gods themselves. I only hope they don’t hold grudges …

Elizabeth Hale

Quaerite et Invenietis: Surveying Classics in Children’s Literature

Hot tip for researchers in classical reception!  In Warsaw this month, the OurMythicalChildhood team launched its wonderful survey of Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture Inspired by Classical Antiquity  Read on to find out more . . . .

I’m writing this from Chopin airport, waiting for my plane to take me away from the magic that is OurMythicalChildhood’s Warsaw team.  It was a wonderful visit: exciting and challenging.  I’ll be posting more about it in the next weeks, as I’m hoping to share some of what the students in the project have been up to.  At The Present Meets the Past they gave excellent presentations about their discoveries while working on the survey, sharing their findings from literature, film, games, and toys: they’re sending me information for a posting later in June.

In the meantime, some information about the survey.  It represents the work of the past year, in which our teams have been gathering entries from around the world.  Currently there are 450 entries, and we’re committed to producing over 1000 more during the project.  See the OurMythicalChildhood website for more information about the project as a whole.

The survey is truly a team effort.  Each entry is written by a researcher, identifying and uncovering the classical elements in books, films, games, toys, and ephemera from children’s culture around the world.  It is peer-reviewed twice by senior members of the team, checking for accuracy and insights.  Each entry contains a summary and analysis of the item, providing scholarly insights from different angles (classics, reception, children’s literature, film…).  Each entry is also tagged with markers from different fields of knowledge–classics, children’s literature, genre, more . ., throwing up interesting combinations and providing surprising results.

This survey will be a useful tool for researchers and teachers of classical antiquity and children’s literature alike.  It reveals the ongoing power of classics in popular culture day, the care and enjoyment with which children’s writers draw on ancient motifs, and the sheer fun that is to be had in finding one’s way through a labyrinth of curious texts.

Katarzyna Marciniak launched the survey during the Present Meets the Past workshop, and it is open for use, as a living work of scholarly inquiry.  So we invite you, please, to use it and to join with us in our mythical explorations.  The motto at the base of the site reads: Quaerite et invenietis (seek, and ye shall find), and we hope you will find what you’re looking for, and more, and that you will also share with us your discoveries and insights along the way.

Screenshot 20http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/myth-survey18-05-31 17.21.26

–Elizabeth Hale

Kindness and Classicists

View from the Life is Cool Cafe, Warsaw
View from the Life is Cool Cafe, Warsaw

This is a photo from my visit to Warsaw for the Present Meets the Past workshop of the OurMythicalChildhood project. It is taken from inside the Life is Cool café, during an experimental afternoon in which two of my colleagues, Susan Deacy and Edoardo Pecchini, talked about their work using classical mythology in relation to mental health and different abilities. We were all piled somewhat on top of one another, in a venue far different from the usual formality of a conference room, and as I listened, I watched the attentive faces of the audience, which comprised some of the Life is Cool community, as well as students and academics from around the world.

I was tucked away by the window, and occasionally looked out, over the pretty flowers on the sill, into a very rainy Warsaw afternoon, to watch (and photograph) the red-and-yellow trams pass in front of the orange apartment building.

Warsaw buildings are colourful: in shades of blue, green, yellow, pink, and more. But not obtrusively so: you don’t notice them at first, and they creep up on you later. Every day there is something more to like about this lovely city.

You can’t see the people of the cafe in this picture, but it encapsulates for me the warmth and comradeship that the project embodies. I think of it as Classics with Kindness: using knowledge of classical matters to do good in the world. Susan and Edoardo’s work is the most tangible aspect of that approach (see Susan’s blog post on her workshop) , but I think the work of the whole project is infused with kindness, and it’s an important theme within the subject of classical reception in children’s culture more generally.

Over an extraordinarily stimulating week, we heard talks about

  • what happens when children start to recognise classical signifiers in their books, and where it can take them (Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer);
  • how to classify the types of reception represented, and what to do with them next (Markus Janka, Raimund Fichtel);
  • how to mix things up and experiment (yours truly, with help from Tina Matthews and Sally Zwartz);
  • how to gather information about the good work done by classical educators the world over (Lisa Maurice, Ayelet Peer);
  • how to think about myth as a living force in diverse cultures (Daniel Nkemleke, Eleanor Dasi, Divine Che Neba);
  • how to think about, recover, and honour the lives of classicists in Communist countries (Jerzy Axer, David Movrin, Elzbieta Olechowska)
  • how to organise one’s thoughts about reception in productive ways (Helen Slaney);
  • how to move myths through animation, and to create your own ancient vase (Sonya Nevin & Steve Simons);
  • how to dance like an ancient Greek—or as a bird, a tree, a river, a wolf (Helen Slaney);
  • how to use myth to work with autistic children (Susan Deacy);
  • how to promote mental health through classics (Edoardo Pecchini);
  • how to think about museum guides for children (Katerina Volioti);
  • how to think about crossover texts for children and adults (Karoline Thaidigsmann);
  • how writers research classical material carefully in order to write well for child readers (Valentina Garulli);
  • the part mythical creatures play in early children’s literature (Sonja Schreiner);
  • how contemporary writers treat animals in fantasy literature (Anna Mik);
  • how Soviet animators drew on a wealth of classical material in their work for young people (Hanna Paulouskaya);
  • how space and time meet in particular ways in the relation of the present, the past, and children’s literature (Jan Kieniewicz);
  • how Siberian nationalism is represented in the resurrection of the myth of the Cold Bull at the end of winter (Kunnej Takaahaj);
  • the transmission of Buddhist ideas in Mongolic literature, through the genre surgaal and folk knowledge (Ayur Zhanaev).

I don’t want to give short shrift to the students who also presented excellent work, so I’ll write another post shortly. Suffice it to say that in their presentations, a similarly wide range of material and ideas was covered.

The themes of care (in both senses of caring, and of carefulness), of kindness, of contribution, hard work, thoughtfulness, and insight were powerfully present in these talks and workshops. And nowhere was it more evident than in the oversight of OurMythicalChildhood’s extraordinary leader, Katarzyna Marciniak. In one discussion I compared her and her colleagues to a shepherd and sheepdogs, leading, and tending to a flock of sheep—rounding us up, making sure we ate, moving us towards our destinations, but always, always caring: about the team and the individuals, about the conversation, about the vision. Sometimes sheep, like academics, pull in different directions, go astray, wander off, get a little lost, but with guides like Katarzyna, never for long; I know that we are all eager to return to Warsaw next year to look at History.

Kindness is not always a dominant value in academia, where the pressures can be significant, and the competition fierce.  I’m heartened by events like The Present Meets the Past, and by endeavours like The Sportula, which facilitates microgrants for classics students in need, and by being part of the community of kind and supportive scholarship that OurMythicalChildhood represents.  So I conclude this post with thanks to Katarzyna, to her team (Hanna Paulouskaya, Elzbieta Olechowska, Karolina Kulpa, Anna Mik, Agnieska Maciejweska), and to the Faculty of Artes Liberales which provides such a wonderful nurturing ground for the project.  The Polish for ‘thank you very much’ is Dziękuję bardzo, and so this Antipodean on her Odyssey, says Dziękuję bardzo!

–Elizabeth Hale