BMCR 2017.06.47

Our Mythical Childhood… : The Classics and Literature for Children and Young Adults. Metaforms, 8

, Our Mythical Childhood... : The Classics and Literature for Children and Young Adults. Metaforms, 8. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. xv, 526. ISBN 9789004313422. $202.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

As a Classicist and a mother, I have been following with excitement for over a decade now the publication of literature on Classical themes for children and young adults. My eleven-year-old is an avid reader and has enjoyed such books as the Harry Potter series, and anything by Rick Riordan. Thus, when I heard of this volume, I was curious to see what academics might have to say about the books that I have read with my son. On a less scholarly note, I had also hoped to get ideas for what else we could read. The volume fulfilled both goals, to an extent, but overall this turned out to be a very different book than I expected, which is by no means a bad thing.

As the title states, this is a book that surveys the place of the Classics in literature for children and young adults. What perhaps does not come across as fully until one holds this 526-page volume in one’s hands, is that this is a very comprehensive survey that looks at the borrowings from the Greco-Roman world in children’s literature from all around the globe. Since the volume contains a grand total of twenty-six case-study essays, in addition to an introductory chapter, this review cannot address each contribution but will consider the volume’s strengths and weaknesses mostly as a body.

An obvious strength of the collection is its ambitious coverage of the reception of the Classics in literature for children and young adults in such diverse locations as Slovenia, Russia, Israel, and even Japan, in addition to the usual suspects (yes, there are two chapters on Harry Potter, although nothing on Percy Jackson). The temporal scope of coverage is as impressive as the geographical, with coverage from antiquity to the present, although the volume is largely skewed towards the last century or so, for reasons that become readily apparent when reading the volume’s introduction and Wilfried Stroh’s chapter surveying Latin books for children. The idea of literature specifically for children is, they argue, a fairly modern phenomenon, and one greatly influenced by such Enlightenment thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The project’s inclusion of scholars from all over Europe, as well as the United States and Kenya, is equally impressive, and is likely a consequence of the volume’s genesis as a special project on the Classics and children’s literature between East and West at the University of Warsaw’s Centre for Studies on the Classical Tradition. A special highlight of the volume, at least for this reviewer, is a fascinating series of five essays on Aesop’s fables and their reception in different national literatures. Another high point is Katarzyna Marciniak’s concluding essay on mythological fan fiction, a genre that blurs the old and the new like no other.

While it is impossible to address all of the volume’s individual contributions in further detail, I would like to comment further on several essays that stood out to me. I should note that the singling of these four essays is not meant to suggest that the rest are not worthy of comment.

The first part of the book presents a variety of case studies on the appropriation of the Classics in different regions of the world. In his essay on the legacy of the Classics in modern Greek literature for children, P. Kordos takes an ethnographic approach to analyzing the relationship of children who grow up in modern-day Greece to the ruins of Ancient Greece amidst which they literally live, about which they learn increasingly more at each level in their schooling, and about which they read even in works of fiction. Kordos argues that children initially take a matter-of-fact approach to the ancient world and its place in their lives, as exemplified by such everyday phenomena as the use of an ancient arch as a goal for a game of soccer. Public school education, however, over time imbues the children with a greater sense of awe about the legacy of the Ancient Greeks, and their duty to preserve it. But popular fiction for children adds an element of emotion, and connects the ancient ruins to the phenomena of modern life in Greece. One of the three books that Kordos discusses, The Statue That Was Cold, tells the story of an ancient Greek statue from the first century BC. The statue is that of a little boy, and is described as a refugee who is missing his motherland. The overall sense of the book is that of nostalgia for the past. Kordos notes that his own son did not like the book, and concludes the chapter with an exhortation for “less emotional overtones, less politics, and more fun in books for children with ancient themes” (p. 142). While this is a sound recommendation, it may also show the difficulty that scholars may have in relating to children’s literature, and especially children’s literature from a civilization other than their own. Perhaps a better ethnographic approach to the topic would have been to interview Greek children about their impressions of the books examined in the chapter.

Edith Hall’s essay on Aesop’s Fables is one of the gems of the book, and is a standout in the most cohesive part of the book, centering on Aesop and his use in children’s literature around the world. Given the popularity of the Fables, Hall asks an intriguing question that hearkens back to the Enlightenment. Are the Fables truly suitable for educating and entertaining young children, the way John Locke and William Godwin recommended, or should we rather side with Rousseau and Paine, who found the Fables to be problematic and potentially damaging to children? Hall sides with the latter, while acknowledging the tremendous influence of the Fables on children’s literature. She argues, nevertheless, that the Fables should be best seen as the kind of book that adults believe children should like, because of its focus on animals and the perceived usefulness of its lessons. In reality, however, children do not relate to the Fables, and thus are unlikely to enjoy them or wish to read them at all.

Sheila Murnaghan and Deborah H. Roberts’ essay, which opens the third part of the volume, aims to “explore responses to the First World War in texts for children that engage in different ways with the ancient world and present us with oppositions between history and myth, between a more popular and a more rarefied audience, and between celebration of war and the hope for peace” (p. 221). The authors of the chapter aim to show, through such case studies as R. F. Wells’s With Caesar’s Legions: The Adventures of Two Roman Youths in the Conquest of Gaul, that tales of war, mythology, and heroism abounded in children’s literature after the First World War. The message of the works, however, varied based on the author, ranging from praise for the heroism of the fighters to expressing the desire for peace, as seen, for instance, in the writings of Katherine Lee Bates.

Last but not least, K. Marciniak’s fascinating essay concludes the volume by considering the use of ancient Greek and Roman myths in the (arguably) most modern of genres — fan fiction. Marciniak argues that mythological fan fiction seamlessly marries an interest in the Classics with the quest for one’s identity on the part of modern youth. The goal of the chapter is three-fold. First, Marciniak aims to present how children and young adults structure and approach their fanfics. The fanfics reflect the writing ability and maturity level of their authors, varying from very poorly written to quite good. Second is the question of whether the creators of mythological fan fiction have a particular canon of works to which they refer most commonly. The surprising answer is that the canon is largely based on the representation of classical myths in modern young adult literature, especially Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels. Finally, Marciniak is interested in uncovering the function that such fan fiction serves for its creators. Her argument is that the youthful fans use their writing to cope with common challenges and stress of adolescence while also having some fun. The suitability of ancient myths to these purposes, argues Marciniak, is what makes them truly timeless.

The two weaknesses of the volume are ones that are shared by many such ambitious projects. First, there is no clear overarching thesis to the book as a whole, other than that Classical reception plays an important role in modern literature for children and young adults around the world. Second, and more noticeable, is that the organization of the essays within the volume makes no sense. The volume is divided into four parts, yet most essays could have fit just as well in other sections than the one to which they were assigned. Furthermore, some of the section titles themselves are confusing, such as the title of Part 4, “New Hope: Classical References in the Mission of Preparing Children to Strive for a Better Future.” Part 2, on Aesop’s Fables and their reception, is the exception to this trend.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, the volume will be a convenient reference work for scholars of children’s and young adult literature (the latter being quite a burgeoning field of study now), and thus its appeal is likely to extend well beyond scholars in the field of Classics proper.

Table of Contents

Introduction, “What is a Classic… for Children and Young Adults?”
PART 1. In Search of Our Roots: Classical References as a Shaper of Young Readers’ Identity
Wilfried Stroh, “From Aesop to Asterix Latinus : A Survey of Latin Books for Children”
Barbara Milewska-Waźbińska, “Childhood Rhetorical Exercises of the Victor of Vienna”
Katarzyna Jerzak, “The Aftermath of Myth through the Lens of Walter Benjamin: Hermes in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and in Astrid Lindgren’s Karlson on the Roof
Jerzy Axer, “A Latin Lesson for Bad Boys, or: Kipling’s Tale of the Enchanted Bird”
Valentina Garulli, “Laura Orvieto and the Classical Heritage in Italy before the Second World War”
Agata Grzybowska, “Saul Tschernichowsky’s Mythical Childhood: Homeric Allusions in the Idyll Elka’s Wedding
Robert A. Sucharski, “Jadwiga Żylińska’s Fabulous Antiquity”
Przemysław Kordos, “A Child among the Ruins: Some Thoughts on Contemporary Modern Greek Literature for Children”
Ewa Rudnicka, “The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Polish Lexicography for Children and Young Adults”
PART 2. The Aesop Complex: The Transformations of Fables in Response to Regional Challenges
Edith Hall, “Our Fabled Childhood: Reflections on the Unsuitability of Aesop to Children”
Peter T. Simatei, “A Gloss on Perspectives for the Study of African Literature versus Greek and Oriental Traditions”
Beata Kubiak Ho-Chi, “Aesop’s Fables in Japanese Literature for Children: Classical Antiquity and Japan”
Adam Łukaszewicz, “Vitalis the Fox: Remarks on the Early Reading Experience of a Future Historian of Antiquity in Poland (1950s-1960s)”
David Movrin, “Aemulating Aesopus: Slovenian Fables and Fablers between Tradition and Innovation”
PART 3. Daring the Darkness: Classical Antiquity as a Filter for Critical Experiences
Sheila Murnaghan and Deborah H. Roberts, “Armies of Children: War and Peace, Ancient History and Myth in Children’s Books after World War One”
Elena Ermolaeva, “Classical Antiquity in Children’s Literature in the Soviet Union”
Elizabeth Hale, “Katabasis ‘Down Under’ in the Novels of Margaret Mahy and Maurice Gee”
Owen Hodkinson, “ ‘His Greek Materials’: Philip Pullman’s Use of Classical Mythology”
Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, “Orpheus and Eurydice: Reception of a Classical Myth in International Children’s Literature”
PART 4. New Hope: Classical References in the Mission of Preparing Children to Strive for a Better Future
Lisa Maurice, “Greek Mythology in Israeli Children’s Literature”
Joanna Kłos, “ Telemachus in Jeans : Adam Bahdaj’s Reception of the Myth about Odysseus’ Son”
Hanna Paulouskaya, “ An Attempt on Theseus by Kir Bulychev: Travelling to Virtual Antiquity
Christine Walde, “Graeco-Roman Antiquity and Its Productive Appropriation: The Example of Harry Potter”
Elżbieta Olechowska, “J. K. Rowling Exposes the World to Classical Antiquity”
Helen Lovatt, “East, West, and Finding Yourself in Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries
Katarzyna Marciniak, “Create Your Own Mythology: Youngsters for Youngsters (and Oldsters) in Mythological Fan Fiction”