There are many glorious picture books published in Australia, and Once there was a boyis on of them. It’s a seemingly simple book that stays in the mind for a long time. It is by a wonderful artist, Dub Leffler, who is descended from the Bigambul and Mandandanji people of South-West Queensland, and who grew up in Quirindi, not far from Armidale. He has worked with luminaries such as Shaun Tan and Banksy, and in Once there was a boy, he has created a lovely piece of storytelling that recasts a whole lot of invasion narratives into a simple fable about a boy who lives alone on an island, and a girl who visits without invitation, eats his fruit, sleeps in his bed, and breaks his heart.
I’ve put this book on the syllabus for my summer class Introduction to Literature through Children’s Books, because I want to talk about how intertextuality, adaptation and retelling work in storytelling. Once there was a boy, in which I can see echoes of the myth of Pandora, the folktale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Telltale Heart, the Perrault recording of the Bluebeard story, and more. It’s a really clever book–simple, rich, and resonant., with exquisite artwork.
How far do we go with influence-chasing, however? It’s something I’ll be discussing with the class: intertextuality is appealing, but only if it’s meaningful, and one can end up down a rabbit-hole of references and parallels which go well beyond what the author intends, or wants to acknowledge.
That said, Once there was a boy offers a take on the Pandora myth that points to its place as a cautionary ‘don’t touch’ tale. A curious little girl, who has invited herself in to the boy’s island home, looks under the bed (despite being told not to), and deals with the consequences of her actions.
The original Pandora myth ends with the discovery of Hope, trapped in the famous box, operating as a balm for the ills of the world that have been released on first opening.
Where does Hope lie in Once there was a boy? I think it resides in the actions of the little girl, who reflects on what she has done, and makes a profound gesture in order to heal and reconcile, giving her own heart to the little boy. It’s possible to read this book as a reflection on colonisation, whereby the girl represents the naive intrusion of colonisers, and the boy represents the place and people they dislodge and disrupt. Once there was a boy has a strong resonance in relation to the power structures of post-colonial Australia. Leffler doesn’t dwell on the challenges and problematics of reconciliation and reparation, but the meaning is clear: for true reconciliation to occur, acts of reparation need to take place.
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)
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)
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)
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.
A recent discovery is Brisbane based author, Frank Sikalas, whose charming retellings of mythology for kids are published through his Kid Titan imprint. I’ve been enjoying reading his graphic novels, Icarus Rising,which explores a future life for the doomed flying boy, and his Athena Warrior Goddess, dedicated to the coming of age of one of Greek mythology’s most powerful figures. And most of all, I’m enchanted by his picture book, Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero, which retells the famous legend and imparts all sorts of information about life in the age of legends.
I’m always interested to find out what draws young authors to classical myth, and I wrote to Frank Sikalas to find out. He grew up in a Greek family, ‘where the culture spilled out in every aspect of my upbringing… Greek school, Greek dancing classes, etc.’ After studying ancient history and mythology at the University of Queensland, he rediscovered his earlier love of storytelling and began writing the myths that he now publishes through Kid Titan.
Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero might be my favourite of Frank’s work so far. It does a lovely job of retelling the Theseus myth with sympathy for the different players, and conveying the spirit of the age of legends.
Frank explained that he lets the story determine what form he tells it in, and this picture book combines action with information, through word and image.
The development of this aesthetic began at the beginning of putting the first book together and the formation of Kid Titan. I felt that Kid Titan had to be represented in organic and natural tones more connected to the ancient times but with a fun and modern twist. I always think about it, every time Kid Titan is on display whether flyers or stickers.
Creating the visuals for the characters and book was one of research and style. I wanted unique styles for each publication and so once I selected and commissioned the artist, the process of putting it altogether began. I provided the artist the script and character descriptions. The process is a back and forward one where I approved the character concepts, scenes and pages.
Other books that Frank Sikalas produces through Kid Titan are graphic novels–including adaptations of the myths of (Icarus Rising in which a revived Icarus helps rebuild a fallen world) and Athena Warrior Goddess (in which the goddess Athena comes of age and builds her powers fighting the Titans). He doesn’t restrict himself to Greek mythology, but branches out into other areas, such as Norse and Chinese myth. Future ventures include Egyptian myths, and a young adult novel. There’s even a deck of playing cards featuring figures from myths around the world.
I asked Frank why he thinks we still connect to Classical myth.
We look towards and connect with classical mythology, I believe, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I believe it’s ingrained in us and passed on from century to century, generation to generation no matter where the myth comes from. Secondly, we seek to express ourselves, our culture and to make sense of our environments and what’s happening around us, no different to what our ancestors did.
It’s a constant source of amazement to me that so many creators from around the world are drawing on the Greek myths and combining them into new forms, and playing with new ideas. I’ll be eagerly keeping an eye on Kid Titan to see what Frank comes up with next.
One of the nicest things about working in the Our Mythical Childhood project is looking in my office pigeonhole to see what interesting books have come in. This morning it was this lovely picture book: Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love.
In it, a little boy named Julián is obsessed with mermaids. He reads about them on the train, he imagines himself as one when he goes swimming, and he dresses up as one while his abuela (grandmother) is out of the room.
When his grandmother comes back to find Julián wearing a headdress from a potted plant and a flower arrangement and posing with her curtains as a fishtail, she frowns for a moment. She then disappears for a moment, comes back dressed up herself and gives Julián a special necklace to complete his outfit, then takes him for a walk through the city streets, where they join a parade . . . for mermaids.
It’s a moving moment, of acceptance and understanding, and of an adult making the effort to integrate a child into the community he wants to be part of. Being a mermaid is of course a metaphor for thinking about identity, about gender roles, about finding one’s place in the world, and about facilitating that for children. Jessica Love’s beautiful book encapsulates important ideas about difference and about love, acceptance, and integration. I won’t show any of the images: you can find the book yourself and enjoy the discoveries within the way I did.
The necklace of acceptance
Children’s literature these days is doing important work thinking about empowerment, identity and acceptance. It encourages empathy and understanding, and Julián is a Mermaid is an excellent example of a text that draws one in, to achieve the difficult feat of walking in someone else’s (mermaid) shoes. Looking at how Love captures the play of emotions across Julián’s face as his grandmother leaves the room to get the necklace for him, I found myself becoming this little boy for a moment. What would happen if she didn’t accept him? What would he do, what would he become? (Where would he go? How would he manage?) Thank goodness for grandmothers might be the subtext of this book, and the relief and joy I felt when she returns, bearing the necklace of acceptance, was palpable.
The parade Julián and his abuela join is the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, in Coney Island, New York. I looked it up. It celebrates the beginning of summer, has been held annually for 36 years, and looks like a lot of fun
CC BY 2.0 See-ming Lee
CC BY 2.0 Steven Pisano
Like so many parades, it’s an expression of the carnivalesque, of the acceptance and joy of difference, of creativity, of the mythical spirit within us all.
The power of momentary mythicalness
I’ve used the word moment a lot in this little piece, because I think Julián is a Mermaid is a book about the power of moments, about their power to give expression to the rest of our lives. Children’s literature, folktales, fairytales and myths are full of such moments, when the imaginary comes into contact with, and transforms, the real. At the moment of the story Julian is a Mermaid. Who knows if he will be one all his life, or if the desire is a momentary part of the fleeting fluid magic of childhood imagination? Like all good picture books, Julián is a Mermaid leaves the question open, to powerful and moving effect.
Trent Denham’s Jerome’s Gift is an award-winning picture book that shows a child overcoming challenges through ingenuity, recycling, and making do. It takes elements of the hero’s journey as inspiration, and is part of a planned trilogy, incorporating novel, graphic novel, and picture book, that Trent is working on.
I met Trent when he visited Armidale in 2014 as part of the UNE Writers and Illustrators in Residence program I was running with the help of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. While he was with us, Trent completed some illustrations for the book, and shared his expertise in art, design, and digital elements. He’s the brains behind the digital reconstruction of the destruction of Pompeii, which I will interview him about on a separate occasion.
For now, though, we’re talking about Jerome’s Gift, the inspiration behind it, and what led a Melbourne illustrator to spend so much time in the Middle Ages.
What drew you to writing/working with particular myths, and what challenges did you face?
History has always been my strongest interest, even beyond my writing and artistic practice, and though I sway a little more toward the middle ages for my inspiration, I think it is safe to say that the foundations of that period and its culture are most certainly classical. European culture continually looked back to Antiquity as a high point in society, rather than forward into the future. Looking at medieval works was what drew me deeper into the classics. I would go so far as to say that my thirst for history is what drives me in my art making and storytelling. I remember the moment I picked my first illustrated history book off the shelf in kindergarten and I was immediately enthralled.
As I grew up, I began to study and attempt to reproduce in drawing some of the great artworks of history – all of which depicted ancient myths and legends (though most were made in the high middle ages, renaissance, or neo-classical periods!). My older brother also had a beautifully illustrated kids book of stories about Achilles and Medusa and Odysseus, Cyclops, the Golden Fleece, to Thor and Siegfried. It carried me away (forever I think), to places where those stories were real, and had meaning and purpose for me to decipher. I have never really come back from that place.
I’m not sure if I ever consciously chose to adapt a particular myth with my book. What I ended up with was a variation on the ‘mono-myth’; as Joseph Campbell would put it- the hero’s journey is a universal story or experience across many if not all cultures, and it was natural for my story to develop in that way. I only latterly came to understand that about half way through the project, as part of my continued studies.
Many of the adaptations per se, or inspirations for my story have come through traditional folk tales, fables, which are a kind of myth themselves in a long tradition of oral storytelling, but also through an allegorical visual medium. Artists like Brueghel, and even more modern fantasy literature and art (which again draws heavily from mythology) have been a big influence.
Jerome on the way, copyright Trent Denham
Jerome and mother, copyright Trent Denham
Kraken, copyright Trent Denham
Jerome and the Kraken, copyright Trent Denham
Jerome’s boat, copyright Trent Denham
Jerome’s Gift, cover copyright Trent Denham
Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?
My understanding of myth is that it exists to help us through our own times and experience. It is for that reason that myth is so adaptable, and often at variance with other versions of itself. You can tell any myth from various perspectives in order to describe a particular situation. This is helpful in that it is relatable to the listener – how many ways can a Shakespeare be told and adapted for a contemporary audience for instance? It is endless!
What was truly revelatory for me was the discovery that the artists I always looked up to- the ones depicting scenes from Antiquity and mythology- have adapted those scenes for their own times! In doing this, they can make a deeper commentary on their own historical period! For example, Brueghel’s biblical “massacre of the innocents” is depicted in his own native Flanders. Why? To draw a parallel with the wartime atrocities committed by the Spanish in his own lifetime. Or his “Fall of Icarus” that features a 16th century galleon and not a Greek ship. The contemporary context places the lesson of the myth for his own audience. In turn, others can then reference Brughel’s work to give it new meaning (but you will have to look close!).
And that is how the tradition of art and storytelling continues- it changes and evolves to keep relevance in our own time. So the artists and authors I look to, in turn looked back on others yet more distant in history, and so on until the depths of time when our primitive ancestors first looked to the stars and told stories to make sense of their world.
These types of story will always be relevant to us because we have carried them with us forever, and we did so because they help us understand ourselves and the world we live in.
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?
Yes I did study some classics, and a lot of other history both old and new, as part of my Creative Arts degree. But the truth is that I have always undertaken studies on my own, outside of educational institutions, and was always reading stuff at home that would never have been presented to me in schools. My library is full of strange and wonderful things.
Though most of my reading is in more academic texts these days, some of my favourite and most influential books were from when I was a kid.
Asterix and the Laurel Wreath, by Goscinny and Uderzo
Timeless Myths, by Brenda Ralph Lewis
Timeless Myths, by Brenda R Lewis and illustrated by Rob McCaig, Brimax Books, 1980. That was my older brother’s book mentioned earlier (I now have a copy of my own)
And of course…
Other great and influential artists are John Howe and Alan Lee, both of whom have illustrated many myths and legends, but are probably better know for their work on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
When you were developing Jerome’s Gift, did you think about how myth and antiquity would translate for young readers, esp. in Australia?
Yes and no. I understand that regional references and situations are easier for more people to connect with, but I don’t really make stories for ‘everyone’, I make stories for strange young kids like I was, who might pick up an old history book in kindergarten and think “yes, this is for me”
Are you planning any further forays?
Definitely! In fact the history of Jerome’s Gift goes back a few stories, and the further back it goes, the deeper into myth and its own antiquity it gets. For me though, I like to use History and Mythology as a theoretical framework and not the basis of the story itself. For example, for my next book I am using chapter titles that borrow names of the siblings of Titans (like Zelos, which means ‘rivalry’, or Nike which means ‘victory’). In this way I can both reference familiar mythology, and use it as a structure to build my own narrative that relates to an understood theme. It gives me direction and inspiration to create a new world.