I am Fartacus

I am Fartacus, by Mark Maciejewski, is a jocks-vs-nerds story set in middle school, featuring the enmity between top jock, Archer Norris, and misfit nerd, Maciek Trzebiatowski, aka ‘Chub.’

I am Fartacus, by Mark Maciejewski

Archer is the golden boy who rules the school. He used to be best friends with Chub, until an accident with nit-shampoo meant that Chub lost his hair. Archer, unable to cope with guilt and shame, fled the scene and the friendship turned toxic. While Archer became athletic and popular, Chub became an increasingly alienated outsider, lurking in stairwells and seeking vengeance on his former friend, whom he names ‘the Arch,’ short for ‘the arch-nemesis.’

I am Fartacus is narrated by Chub, who seems to relish his role as an angry outsider, plotting mischief and trying to bring down the Arch, whose popularity galls him greatly. With his new best friend, Levi (‘Moby’) Dick, who eats a lot of lentils and chickpeas, and is always dashing for the loo, Chub uncovers why Arch has so much power in the school. He unmasks Arch and their headmaster as secret gambling addicts, who are out of their depths in a local poker tournament. Empathy wins the day, and when Moby turns out to be a whiz at poker, the friends earn enough money from the tournament themselves, and generously give it away to get their former enemies out of trouble.

I am Fartacus is kids’ comedy of the exploding toilet variety. There are a great many jokes about flatulence and underpants. Chub seems to revel in revoltingness of a kind that we normally draw a veil over at Antipodean Odyssey. I read the whole novel, though, and enjoyed its multiple plots and humorous energy, and as I did, I reflected on the jocks-vs-nerd format that seems to drive so many American children’s books and films–the endless tussle and perplexity about what makes some people popular, and about where true power and agency lie.

Which is one way of thinking about the power structures at a junior high school: Chub leading a group of misfits to revolt against the popular kids who rule the roost. But Chub comes to understand that no one at school has as much power as they might seem to, and the novel ends with his friendship with Arch restored, and the idea of misfits vs jocks overturned.

That exploration of power connects to the novel’s title, which alludes to the film, Spartacus (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas. Chub’s cousin, Jarek, who runs the local retro cinema, has screened this film, and though Chub refers to it only once, the novel’s title implies he views his struggle against Arch in similar terms to Spartacus’s leading of the slaves’ revolt.

Ever since I convinced [Moby] to watch Spartacus last summer, he gets suspicious when he doesn’t know what the new movie is.

‘Don’t worry, new release.’

He turns to me, his eyes burning the side of my face. ‘I hope so. Spartacus didn’t make any sense.’

I’m tired of trying to explain the famous scene where all the slaves claim to be Spartacus so the Romans can’t tell which one really is.

Moby won’t let it go. ‘I mean, seriously, how can they all be Spartacus? That’s a pretty big mess-up if you ask me.’

‘Mmmm–himmm,’ I say, hoping he’ll drop it.

He doesn’t. ‘And if there’s more than one, shouldn’t the move be called Sparta-CI?’ He taps his temple. ‘Think about it.’

I am Fartacus, 8-9

Apart from this moment of exposition early on, I am Fartacus refers only slightly to Spartacus. The final chapter, in which Chub and his new ‘cadre’ of friends all take the blame for an epic fart that Moby has let out in class, connects with the famous ‘I am Spartacus’ moment. By that time, Chub and Archer have reconciled, and Chub has realised that that empathy, friendship and kindness are more powerful than vengeance.

In the film, of course, all the slaves who claim to be Spartacus are crucified, along with Spartacus himself: it is a story about powerful sacrifices for the cause of freedom. And while taking the blame for a friend’s fart is admirable, and a sign that Chub has learned the value of solidarity, I am Fartacus seems to draw more inspiration from the various memes of the phrase that appear on t-shirts and gifs and bumper stickers (all searchable online if you wish)….

I couldn’t quite work out if the novel was parodying the junior-high school novel genre’s obsession with power structures, or simply enjoying playing around with stories about enmity and friendship. And I’m not enough of a Spartacus expert to recognise if the story draws strongly on the film’s plot structure. Not that it necessarily has to! Not everyone has to be obsessed with classical references in children’s literature. Not every children’s book has to be faithful to its referent text. What I am Fartacus delivers is some thoughtful reflection on the pressures of life, and the redeeming power of friendship–and a lot of fun.

–Elizabeth 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

I came, I saw, I threw up–slapstick history in Julius Zebra

‘I’d forgotten what an impetuous little donkey you are’–The Emperor Hadrian, Julius Zebra: Entangled with the Egyptians.

As part of my mission to think about history and comedy, I’ve been reading Gary Northfield’s very funny Julius Zebra series of middle-grade chapter books  In the first of them, Rumble with the Romans, Julius, a zebra from the ‘stinky lake’ in the middle of Africa, is captured and taken to Rome to visit the circus.  Actually, that’s what he thinks at first.  In fact, he’s taken to be in the circus, to fight for his life in front of the Emperor Hadrian.  At first it doesn’t go so well for Julius and his friends, but when a gladiator calls him a ‘stripy horse,’ Julius sees red and finds his fighting instincts, becoming the crowd’s, and the Emperor’s favourite.

It’s a kind of Spartacus-meets-Gladiator –meets Asterix-meets-Beano-and-Dandy romp, mixing madcap mayhem with quite a bit of historical information along the way, and it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read about Ancient Rome in a a long time.

Bundle with the Britons is the second in the Julius Zebra series, in which Julius and his friends are sent to Britain to subdue the Britons by taking on their fearsome gladiators.  But when they go on a training run through a swamp, they meet an old woman in a hut, who tells them about the great Iceni warrior, Boudicca, and shows them how to paint themselves with woad, they join forces with their British counterparts, to overthrow the Romans.  Next up is Entangled with the Egyptians, where Julius, fleeing from Hadrian, ends up in Egypt, where he is mistaken for a horse god who can make it rain.  And the last, so far, in the series, is Grapple with the Greeks, in which the great hero Heracles drags Julius and his friends to Greece to help him find his lost Golden Apple.

Northfield creates a merry band of companions for his hero.  There’s Cornelius, the know-it all warthog.  He functions much like Brenda the Wonder-Camel in the Cairo Jim books, providing information when necessary.  (Even if Julius mishears half of it, and misunderstands the rest, the information is very helpful for readers.)  There’s Lucia, the crocodile, whose cunning escape plans seem always to lead the gang back to their captors.  Rufus, the amiable giraffe, always up for adventure, Felix, the rock-collecting antelope, and Milus, a grumpy lion.  Sometimes the gang is joined by their gladiatorial-combat instructor, Pliny the mouse.  And once Julius is reunited with his dimwitted brother, Brutus, even more mayhem ensues.

Together, Julius and friends travel the Roman empire, from Africa to Rome, to Britain, to Egypt and Greece, matching wits with Septimus, a bad-tempered teacher of gladiators, and the emperor himself.

The novels are an enticing mixture of text and cartoons, with a lot of shouting, slapstick and bad puns.  Chapters have titles like ‘I came, I saw, I threw up,’ (Romans) and ‘I want my Mummy’ (in Egyptians), and ‘Hoo noo broon coo’ (Britons), and the humour doesn’t err on the side of subtlety.  But again, along the way, is a great deal of information, delivered in part by Cornelius the warthog, and visible in the details of Northfield’s text and illustrations.  He’s clearly done his research, and for readers eager to know more about Ancient Rome, each volume has a final chapter in which Cornelius teaches how to count in Roman Numerals, and a glossary in which Northfield explains the fundamentals of daily life in antiquity.

These books don’t only give you a good laugh, they teach you something, namely details about a long-ago world. They make me want to know more–to check up on things I’d forgotten, and to think about things I hadn’t heard about before.  And they gave me something to think about: they may not be intended as post-colonial critiques of empire, but there’s certainly a resonance in seeing a group of African animals, kidnapped to entertain the humans of Rome, break free and start a rebellion, in Rome and Britain.  Hadrian’s obsession with his big Wall in Britain offers another sort of modern resonance.  Looking at how the animals band together to outwit the humans, whose intentions are seldom good, I can’t help thinking about how our human world exploits animals.  There are other resonances: animals, like children, are often bossed around by adults, and children identify with animals’ innocence and comparative kindness.  Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it’s nothing to what humans get up to.

Funny books don’t have to be educational, but they often are, perhaps despite themselves.  Through humour, action, fun characters, and amusing situations, Julius Zebra and friends convey a great deal of nonsense, but they also teach us a great deal about the the world–ancient or modern.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

Lisl Weil’s Wise and Witty Retellings: King Midas’ Secret and More

Lisl Weil (1910-2006) was an artist, writer, dancer and television presenter who grew up in Vienna, and immigrated to America in 1939. She lived in New York, and illustrated over a hundred books. She was a dancer, and performed live illustration work with symphony orchestras around the country. A fascinating and creative woman!

I found her work thanks to Miriam Riverlea, who uncovered a copy of King Midas’ Secret and Other Follies on our recent research trip to Te Puna National Library of New Zealand. You never know what a keyword will turn up.

I was immediately taken by Weil’s work, which has a sly wit and combines a warm morality with an easy charm, both in images and in words.

This is how King Midas’ Secret begins.

In the days of the ancient gods, the land of Greece was a strange place. Flowers spoke and fabulous beasts were seen every day. Kings and peasants lived in the valleys. The gods lived high up in the clouds atop a great mountain called Olympus. When the gods came down from Mount Olympus, life in this strange land became even stranger.

You could never be sure the bull you saw was not a god in disguise. But the people were the same as they are today. Some were good, some were bad, and many were foolish.

The father of all the gods kept this in mind. Wise people still do. (5-7)

‘You could never be sure the bull you saw was not a god in disguise’–Zeus shows a leg in King Midas’ Secret and Other Follies, Lisle Weil, 1969

King Midas’s Secret and Other Follies is a small collection of myths:

There is the tale of a fame-desiring King Midas, who foolishly thought he could judge the gods’ musical skill and was rewarded with asses’ ears.

The story of Narcissus, a ‘handsome boy,’ who sleeps in, misses the school chariot, and falls into a pond while admiring his reflection.

Next is Icarus, a ‘handy lad,’ who tries to outfly the birds while wearing his father’s wings of wax and feather, and fell from the sky.

And last is the story of the Sphinx: ‘a monster. There was no doubt about it.’ She is so puffed up with her own cleverness that when Oedipus solved her special riddle, she burst with rage.

Each story is accompanied by illustrations in shades of blue, gold, and the occasional purple, drawn with a witty economy of line. At the end of each story, a cheeky chorus sings the moral. For King Midas, the moral is:

Don’t be conceited, or else the wrong fame 

might easily shine upon your name.’ (19)

‘Don’t be conceited, or else the wrong fame might easily shine upon your name’ King Midas’ Secret, Weil, 1969

What I like so much about Weil’s work is its lightness of touch, its combination of wit and warmth. And while purists may notice that she elides great swathes of the original myths, leaving out some of the difficult bits (instead of falling to his death, Icarus is caught by Daedalus in a great upside down umbrella; instead of committing suicide, the Sphinx bursts with rage), what I think she does so nicely is balance the humor and morality of these cautionary myths with a care for children.

Much (in fact most) children’s literature is didactic in some way. We don’t tend to give children books that will encourage them to behave badly unjustifiably; while we want to encourage children’s sense of imagination, adventure, fun, and more, we want them to remain safe. Weil’s cheery choruses seem to wink as they chant their refrain:

Wise people say:

Don’t fly off into the blue

Unless you know what’s in store for you. (33)

How to hide your asses’ ears, King Midas’ Secret, Weil, 1969

The illustrations are simple, and funny, as in the selection Midas’s head gear, developed with his barber to hide his unfortunate ears: but a slight blush on his face reveals that the joke is also cruel for the sufferer. At the same time, one can see her enjoyment of the amazing shapes both of classical clothing and architecture, and of the mythical beasts and monsters. So much about this book, and Weil’s other forays into classical retellings, Of Witches and Monsters and Wondrous Creatures (1985) and Pandora’s Box (1986), shows both an understanding of the humour and games-playing of classical myth, and its darker or deeper sides as well. Her Pandora’s Box shows sympathy for all players; while Of Witches and Monsters and Wondrous Creatures encourages young readers to think about what mythical beasts tell us about the human condition, and human thinking about ourself and the world.

It may take some digging to find out why Weil drew, or was drawn to, this mythological material. And so far, from the hundreds of books she was involved in, I have found only these three with links to Classical Antiquity. Regardless, there’s something unique and rather wonderful about the wit and wisdom with which she approaches these retellings for young readers.

–Elizabeth Hale