Tag Archives: Children’s Literature

The Wooden Horse: my show & tell item

trojanhorse1.jpgMy previous blog posts have shared the experience of attending the Our Mythical Childhood show and tell at the University of Roehampton, but whilst I talked about other people’s contributions I didn’t discuss mine.  The book I chose to share with everyone was The Wooden Horse retold by Russell Punter, and illustrated by Matteo Pincelli.  It is an Usborne Young Reading (series 1) book, and was first published in 2011.  Unlike some of the contributors to the event, this book was not one from my childhood, I had only come across it about about a year ago when I had started looking at Helen of Troy in comics, graphic novels, and children’s illustrated/picture books.

It is a very simplified version of the story, but what I like (in books like this one) is how the author has to make certain choices and decisions about which bits of myths to use, and how best to distil the essence of the story, and in doing so decide what aspect they are going to portray.

Although this book is about the Wooden Horse, to give context the narrative is framed by Helen’s story.  Within the book there are only five named characters – Helen, Menelaus, Paris, Odysseus and Sinon.  The book begins with Helen – her name is actually the first word in the story, and ends with her being taken back to Sparta.  She is a very passive character, and the only time she is given a voice it is internal, when she thinks about what will happen when Menelaus reclaims her.  Despite this being a very simple version we can see how she is portrayed very much as an object – Menelaus is ‘proud’ of having a ‘lovely wife’, and we see her as a possession of his.  Once Troy has been defeated Helen is taken back alongside Trojan treasure – the implication being that she too is a piece of ‘treasure’, an object to be shipped back.  Probably the most interesting sentence in the book (for me), occurs on the final page : “Helen may not have wanted to go back to Greece, but she had no choice.” (p. 47)  Which speaks volumes.

STKarenTrojanHorse2In the afternoon of the ‘show & tell’ we chose books from the University of Roehampton’s special collections and, as I told in a previous post, I picked a book called The Trojan Horse, by James Reeves and illustrated by Krystyna Turska as I thought it would prove to be an ideal counter part to the book I had brought with me.  The episode of the wooden horse is framed in quite a different way and is told through the character of Ilias, a grown man (at the time of telling) but who was aged ten when Troy fell.  He and his younger sister, Ida, escaped and now live far from their ruined former home.  In The Wooden Horse Paris and Helen fell in love, but in this version Ilias describes how Paris stole Helen and kept her prisoner in Troy.  Most of the war is glossed over, and it is really only the episode of how the horse appeared and was brought into Troy and the terrible consequences, that is told.  It is Ilias’ life that frames the episode rather than Helen’s and we are given an insider’s view on events.  As mentioned above I enjoy seeing how writers will encapsulate a particular myth, and particularly liked how these two books, which on the outside might lead one to thinking they would be similar, provide very different aspects of the story.  Incidentally neither of them include the episode related in The Odyssey (IV: 265-289) about Helen calling out to men within the horse using the voices of their wives.

Whilst many of the contributor’s shared books or items that they remembered being influences from their childhood, I realised that I don’t actually recall any particular book with a classical theme from when I was a child.  I feel a bit bereft!  I’m sure there must have been books on mythology, but I can’t pinpoint when my interest in the classical world began to emerge.  What I do remember well was in sixth form we were allowed to take Classical Studies (which we couldn’t do before then), so in the lower sixth we did the O level, and in the upper sixth the A level (only one year each).  We had the most wonderful teacher, Mrs Janet Cox, whom I found very inspiring.  I had obviously discovered the classical world before this point, but this was where I really started learning about it.  Having a teacher who loved her subject made it come alive for all of us.  She would also play music and bring in biscuits for us at break time, and there were classically themed posters on the walls of the classroom.

Incidentally, I also remember that she kept bees in her garden, and it is because of her that I joined The Green Party when still a teenager!

She taught Latin to a mere handful of students at lunchtimes (when I was doing O levels), sadly I never took this option!  It was probably not suggested to me as I wasn’t particularly good at French (the one language we all had to do), and at the time it never really occurred to me to request joining the class.  Grown up Karen is very sad that teenage Karen did not do this!!!!

I enjoyed the ‘show & tell’ and having the opportunity to hear about other people’s formative experiences and books, and have also relished having the opportunity to reflect on my own journey within Classics.  I am also keenly looking out for children’s books that retell Helen’s story, and also that of the Trojan Horse.


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Finding classical treasure in the stacks: Our Mythical Childhood show and tell (part 3)

Here I will talk about the afternoon session of the ‘Show and Tell’ event at the University of Roehampton, held in association with the Our Mythical Childhood project, on 19th June 2018.

In the morning we had all brought along items to share, but in the afternoon we were given the chance to find new treasure from within the shelves of the University’s Archives and Special Collections.  The University archivist, Kornelia Cepok, showed us a variety of collections that had potential for us to find books with a classical theme or influence, including the Richmal Compton Collection. Richmal Crompton was a Classics teacher, and also daughter of a Classics master, and even though she is mainly remembered for the Just William books she also wrote a lot for adults too.

BenHurAs a librarian I was also impressed by the lovely electric rolling stacks, operated by a touch screen, and moving quietly and smoothly without the aid of human arm power! (and quite unlike the electric powered ones I used to have to use in the UWCM medical library which were quite monstrous in construction (think Frankensteinian levers), and so terrifying to use that most students didn’t dare!). But I digress…

It was difficult to know where to start, and how long to spend poring over various items in the stacks, however I was lucky and a few things leapt out at me.  The first item I chose was a copy of Ben Hur, and that really just for the cover. In the end I also chose two other books: The Trojan Horse by James Reeves, illustrated by Krystyna Turska (1968) and The story of the Odyssey by A. J. Church, with illustrations after Flaxman (1892).

stkarentrojanhorse2.jpgI picked The Trojan Horse as it had the same subject (and similar title) as the book I had brought to share, but was a very different interpretation of the story, being told from the viewpoint of a family within Troy, who were suffering due to the Greek attack.  Helen was not a focus at all.  But I also picked it because of the illustrations which I was really drawn to.  Krystyna Turska (1933-), was born in Poland; she spent time in a Russian concentration camp, before coming to England where she established her illustrating career.  Her style was perfect for myths and fairytales, and The Trojan Horse was not the only classical based work that she did.

stpmkaren1.jpgThe Story of the Odyssey was also illustrated but the pictures were done in the style of Greek vase paintings and were taken from John Flaxman’s designs. Flaxman (1755-1826) was a sculptor, draughtsman and ‘leading figure in British Neoclassicism’.  stpmkaren2.jpg

I didn’t take as many notes as in the morning, and didn’t quite catch what everyone’s choices were, but here is a selection of what the others pulled out of the stacks.

STpmRichard1Richard had found a copy of The Bronze Sword by Henry Treece (1965), part of a trilogy set in Roman Britian and centered on Boudicca. He had also found copies of Junior Bookshelf, a review periodical founded in 1936, and aimed at teachers and librarians. Richard pulled out the issue which reviewed The Bronze Sword, so we were able to hear how it was positively received.  He had also found a review for a Mary Renault book which wasn’t particularly well received, and the issue was raised about ‘gender’, and expectations from male and female authors.

STpmTony1Tony Keen (who joined us for the afternoon session) chose The God Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield & Edward Blishen, illustrated by Charles Keeping (1970), which turned out to be not about Poseidon as might be expected, but Hephaestus. We found the illustrations to be very interesting (although I didn’t take any photos of them), as even though a children’s book they appeared to feature nudity.  They are quite symbolic, and deliberately not based on Greek costume or vase paintings, and Keeping is quoted in Children’s Literature in Education 1(3):54 as saying that he used “a figurative art. There’s nothing else in it…except people, their emotions and their reactions to emotions.”  He aslso saw them as violent and cruel.

STpmNanciMinotaurNanci had picked The Hamish Hamilton book of Myths & Legends by Jacynth Hope-Simpson (1964), which turned out to also have illustrations by Krystyna Turska, and we all particularly liked the Minotaur who looked quite cuddly really! If I remember correctly we found that Theseus seemed to be exonerated for many actions in this version, in that deeds he is usually acribed – such as abandoning Ariadne – were here blamed on others, such as the fact that it was the sailors who sailed away forgetting her. He was very much being glorified as the hero.

STpmRobin1Robin had veered away from Greek myth and found The Boy Pharaoh: Tutankhamen by Noel Streatfeild (1972).  This was a non-fiction book for children, and not something I had been aware of Streatfeild writing, being much more familier with her “shoes” books (e.g. Ballet Shoes).

Someone else (sorry can’t remember who) had chosen Richmal Crompton’s Narcissa (1941), it seemed only fitting for at least one of us to have chosen an item from Roehampton’s Crompton collection.  Although this book wasn’t based on a Greek myth, the main character Stella is portrayed as a narcissist, and the myth of Narcissus may indeed have been in Crompton’s mind.

In the morning many items brought to share had a direct emotional link to the person talking about them, often being their first introduction to the classical world when a child.  In the afternoon we were basing our choices on other responses; reactions to titles, covers, illustrations or recognition of an author.  We responded to different types of pictures, and found new connections to the classical world in books we had perhaps never heard of previously.  I have certainly taken note of several of the items that were discussed during the whole day, items I might want to add to my personal book collection.

The day itself proved to be extremely interesting and very rewarding.  I wish to thank Susan Deacy for organising it, for all the attendees for their contributions, and to Roehampton library and their Archives & Special Collections section for hosting.


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“Caecilius est in horto”: Our Mythical Childhood show and tell (part 2)

This is the second part of my write up of the ‘Show and Tell’ event at the University of Roehampton, held in association with the Our Mythical Childhood project.


Richard and the Cambridge Latin Course

Richard Woff, retired Head of Schools and Young Audiences at The British Museum, brought along the Cambridge Latin Course, used to teach Latin in secondary schools and first published in 1970.  For anyone who experienced this course (sadly not myself), they have fond memories of Caecilius and his family, and his tragic death in Pompeii.  Richard was interested in looking at where people remember classics from their childhood.  What kind of memory is it, is it linked to pictures or to characters? Some informal research seems to indicate that prior to 1970 people tended to think about characters – Julius Caesar, Boadicea/Boudica.  If having learned Latin there were mnemonics to help remember grammar that they still recalled, as well as declining Amo, Amas, Amat etc.  1066 and All That (first published 1935) starts in 55BC and the invasion of Julius Caesar, and was culturally embedded into memory.  Things that were remembered were associated with school.  Post 1970, and the advent of the CLC, people now recall the Caecilius family and even “Caecilius est in horto” (first sentence in the first story).  It seemed to indicate a new paradigm of what people were remembering about classics from their childhood. Its influence has been seen to extend into aspects of popular culture, for example, Dr Who!  In 2008, the epidode “The Fires of Pompeii“, featuring David TenSTRichardlatin1nant as Dr Who, was set just before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. The Dr interacts with Caecilius and members of his family, Metella and Quintus, all based on the CLC characters.  Richard noted that the TV series “Plebs” based in ancient Rome has also named some of its characters from those appearing in the CLC.  He surmised that writers on both shows probably experienced the CLC when younger, and have brought this cultural influence to their writing.  He also noted that the course seems to have inspired a wide culture of response and memory with fan fiction, and YouTube videos for example.

STAnwen1Anwen Hayward, Phd student, University of Roehampton, brought Realms of Gold: Myths & Legends From Around the World by Ann Pilling (1993).  She admitted that as a child she was obessed with Greek myths. The cover of this book is classically themed and gives the impression that that is the main content, when in fact there are myths from Africa, Russia, India, Wales, and Norse legends.  Anwen said she remembered being particularly pleased (as Welsh herself) that a Welsh story was included. It was interesting that visually the cover was designed to show classical themes, and perhaps this was a deliberate ploy to attract readers who were already familiar with Greek myths, and then introduce them to other cultures.

STAlison1Alison Waller, Senior Lecturer in children’s literature, University of Roehampton, brought Crown of Acorns by Catherine Fisher (2010).  This book isn’t a classical story, or a retelling of a myth, but does have some classical influence within it.  It is based in Bath, and one of the characters calls herself Sulis, her (chosen) name and ideas about identity are tied in with the plot.  Alison mentioned the importance of ‘place’ within stories, and the associations that get linked to them.  In this instance with Bath there are several different versions that people resonate with – for example, Roman Bath, and Jane Austen’s Bath – two very different cities, but in the same location. This also means that there are a mixture of influences on people reading the book, and in general when we are thinking about place.  I’ve only read a couple of Fisher’s books, but will certainly be looking this one up.

STNanci1Next was Nanci Santos, Independent Researcher, who brought some intriguing comic books in Portuguese (but are also available in English), featuring Donald Duck and his Uncle Scrooge McDuck.  Not where you might think you would find anything classical but Nanci explained that several stories are influenced by Greek myth, and Scrooge McDuck stnanciduck1.jpgis sometimes portrayed as an antiquarian, and there have been instances of time travel, such as back to ancient Egypt.  This was another example of how classical myth can reach into unexpected places.

STKimberly2Following on was Kimberly MacNeill, PhD student at the University of Roehampton, and her object was a doll, but not any ordinary doll, this was Iris Clops, a Monster High character.  These characters are the teenage children of ‘traditional’ fictional monsters, such as Frankenstein.  Iris is of course the daughter of the Cyclops.  The Monster High dolls seem to be part of a movement positing positive views regarding anybody/anything who is not of the norm. Whilst in the Victorian era those who were regarded as monstrous, who might have physical disabilities, were regarded as ‘freaks’ and were shown in public as such; more recently these images have been claimed backed, and ‘monsters’ are becoming more empathic (as an article in the Guardian suggests).  Kimberly boughSTKimberly1t the doll for her daughter, and her daughter provided a lovely illustration of her doll for us plus a few key thoughts.  Kimberly suggested people should perhaps look at their own children to see how they are interacting with the classical world (perhaps they are more heavily influenced if their parents are interested in the classics).  You will also notice how children want to question who are the good guys and who the bad, and what they base their decisions on (a smile = good……).

STSara2Our last contributor for the day was Sara Venkatesu, Ph.D. students, University of Roehampton.  She commented about how her childhood had been filled with books, courtsey of her parents.  Books were everywhere (which sounds like my house now!), and the book she brought to share with us was Sirene by Helga Di Giuseppe and Felice Senatore (2014).  This book tells the story of the Sirens in a very particular way, taking appropriations from Italian myths and stories where the Sirens are portrayed very positively, especially Naples where it is believed that a Siren founded the city.  In Italy Sirens are portrayed as calm and gentle creatures, available to help.  In this book the Sirens are drawn as beautiful women with the legs of birds; Homer doesn’t describe the physical attributes of the Sirens in much detail, and in some cultures Sirens and Mermaids are interchangeable.  Anna noted that in Polish the same word is used for both.  Sara also brought another book featuring Sirens – I mitici sei: Il segreto delle sirene (The mythical six: the secret of the sirens) by Simone Frasca and Sara Marconi (2016), part of a children’s book series based on myth and science fiction.

And so we reached the conclusion of our morning’s session.  It was fascinating to see what a varied group of objects and books had been brought to share.  I was interested to see how some people had brought books that were influences on their own childhood interaction with, or even introduction to, Classics (and this has led me to think about my own encounters with the classical world).  All these objects had stories to tell, and sparked off mini discussions around the table, so it was in fact difficult to break for lunch!  My next post will look at our afternoon adventures exploring the special collection stacks.



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“The wrong plinth” and other stories: Our Mythical Childhood show and tell (part 1)


University of Roehampton Library

On Tuesday 19th June I attended a ‘Show and Tell’ event at Roehampton University, held in association with the Our Mythical Childhood project.  A group of interested parties (academics, graduate students, librarians) gathered in the Foyles Special Collections Room in the rather lovely Roehampton Library that opened last September (2017).  We had all been invited to bring along a classical-themed object of children’s culture to share with the others.  I’ll blogged about my own object separately, (a book called The Trojan Horse) so will focus on what everyone else brought to the table.

First up was a remote contributor, Rachel Bryant Davies of the University of Durham who had been unable to make the day in person; she presented to us, via the wonders of modern technology (skype). Her objects were colouring sheets for 19th century toy theatres – sheets that were designed to be coloured in, cut out and stuck on to cardboard or mounted and then used in the toy theatre.  The characters were representations of equestrian burlesques that were performed at Astley’s Amphitheatre in Lambeth. These included the siege of Troy, and the trick rider Andrew Ducrow striking classical poses on horseback, such as a Roman gladiator.  Children could engage with performances by recreating them at home.  Discussion at the table involved the idea that the mash-up of cultures (classical, medieval, 19th century) enabled the physicality of play.  By ‘modernising’ classical stories, they became less blasphemous and more playful. Although the theatres were probably owned by middle to upper class children, there are comments about poorer children pressing their faces to the publishers/booksellers windows to look at these theatres/character sheets – ‘consuming through the glass windows’.  To find out more about these theatres see Rachel’s recent book – Troy, Carthage and the Victorians: the drama of classical ruins in the 19th century imagination (Cambridge, 2018).


Susan playing ‘Aulos’

After this excellent start to proceedings, Susan Deacy, University of Roehampton (and organiser of the day) talked about Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green, originally published in 1958.  She was given a copy of this book by her Grandad when she was a child, and it opened her eyes to the fascinating world of classics.  Susan’s example was just the first of several, where contributors shared their early introductions to the classical world, and which book or object had a major impact on their early years.  Susan also shared her treble recorder which, when she was reunited with it a few years ago, she found was labelled ‘Aulos’ and thus resonated with her research on Athena (and indeed the aulos).  Although this was not a conscious ‘classical’ moment from her childhood, it resonated as a lovely synchonicity.


Liz sharing images of Once Upon a Time

Liz Hale, University of New England (Australia) shared Once Upon a Time: Children’s Stories From the Classics by Blanche Winder (first published in the 1920s we think), which had some wonderful illustrations – although another contributor (Robin) commented that her Mum had hid the book in the attic as she thought some of the illustrations were really scary! Winder tells the basic myths very much as fairy tales, these were very ‘safe’ and sanitised versions of the stories.



Robin and her Visitors’ Guide

Robin Diver, PhD Student at the University of Birmingham, brought A Visitors’ Guide to Ancient Rome (Usborne).  Aimed at children it gives ideas about the reality of living in an ancient city, from markets to healthcare, chariot racing to public baths; with pictures, top tips and snippets of information. Robin admitted to writing  ‘horrible’ novels about the ancient world when she was a child, inspiration coming from things like the visitors’ guide, and also a programme on Spartan women by Bettany Hughes that she watched when about 9.  Her stories attempted to bring Greeks and Romans together but at the time she didn’t really understand how they really interacted.  A few others also admitting writing books/stories when kids that were influenced by their interest in the classical world.  Liz wrote a play for puppets ‘Scipio in Canterbury’, and Anwen wrote a story involving time travel and Pompei, where the protagonist had a moral dilemma about the idea of preventing the eruption of Vesuvius!


Anna with Pandora

Next up was Anna Mik, University of Warsaw, who shared a gorgous children’s picture book, Pandora by Victoria Turnbull (2017). Pandora is a fox who lives alone in a world of broken things, a post apocalyptic world without nature, until the day a bird with a broken wing falls from the sky.  The text can be interpreted psychologically, looking at ideas of rebirth, or looking at the environment, which lead people to talking about the mythical character of Pandora, of her courage in going back to the jar, of being a ‘risk taker’, of the ideas about women’s curiosity, whether it is perceived as a good or bad thing.  Liz mentioned a YA trilogy, Pandora Jones by Barry Jonsberg that was worth looking at.


Oliver’s Lego Athena

So far, aside from Susan’s recorder, all the ‘objects’ had been books, but Oliver Brookes, Roehampton graduate and trainee librarian, changed all that by introducing Lego Athena!  His thesis topic had been centred round the iconography of Athena, so he was delighted when Lego brought out a version whilst he was writing up, she was perfect to watch over him. He was fascinated by which aspects of Athena had been chosen to be represented by Lego – although they themselves call her “Battle Goddess“.  Oliver commented on the interesting experience in crafting your own figure or goddess out of all the pieces. Susan brought out her own Lego Athena, and playmobil Athena, and I followed soon after with my playmobil Helen and we talked again about choices made in deciding upon what objects/costumes are used to d


Athena meets Athena

esignate these figures as who they are.  Whether that matters more to adults/classicists in these examples, and whether the view of a child is more simplistic.

My offering was next but I will leave that for a separate post.

I will continue my write up of the day in Part 2, where more interesting objects are shared.


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