Ancient Greece

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).

More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!

For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

The Double Axe by Philip Womack

double axe

Philip Womack takes the ancient myth of King Minos and the Minotaur and retells it with a teenage protagonist in his latest book, The Double Axe. He adds exciting political intrigue and mystery to the royal court; and blood and gore and fantastical creatures worthy of a time of hunting and war, when science hadn’t quite revealed all the mysteries of the universe.

Research conducted by the OUP (Oxford University Press) and published this week reveals that 93 per cent of the teachers they surveyed in primary schools said it is important that children have access to classic stories. Talking to writers and reading many children’s books, it’s not surprising to find that so much of our contemporary literature either contains threads and fragments of classic tales, or consists of whole stories reshaped and updated into contemporary settings. Fairy tales subtly haunt Katherine Rundell’s latest book, The Wolf Wilder, David Almond’s award-winning A Song for Ella Grey retells the Orpheus story, albeit with modern twists, and Mal Peet famously borrowed Othello from Shakespeare for his award-winning novel Exposure. The best writers know their classic stories.

Philip Womack introduces The Double Axe by explaining that he is stretching out his myth like a tapestry – indeed the beauty of using a classical myth as a basis for a modern story is that the myths retain plasticity and so can be manipulated in the retelling. Myths were what remained for the Ancient Greeks about their early history. Thucydides wrote that Minos had a fleet of ships – the first king to have such an armada, and yet made no mention of the Minotaur, preferring to stick to history with no mention of gods. In rewriting the story of King Minos and the Minotaur, an author can revisit Ovid, or Catullus, or study Ancient Greek art, or architecture. The ruins of Minos’ palace at Knossos are apparently like a labyrinth themselves – something that Philip Womack draws on in his retelling. Interestingly though, Womack takes us on a very different journey – whereas most readers would expect that any retelling of the Minotaur myth would lead with the protagonist as Theseus, Womack splits off to a different tangent – and so the intrigue starts from the first page.

Thirteen year old Stephan, prince at the court of King Minos, finds himself heir when his older brother is killed. But when his father leaves to avenge his son’s death, Stephan is left in a palace that swarms with rumours and political machinations: the engineer Daedalus is keeping secrets in the basement, a strange and powerful priestess is prophesying unusual portents and carrying out unusual practices, and Stephan wonders if someone within the court is betraying his family to Athens. With his sister, Ariadne, Stephan works to find out what is going on – and how he can save his family and his father’s kingdom.

Although told from a teenage sensibility with a fairly modern voice and therefore sounding a resonance for a modern teen reader, there is plenty in here that still speaks to mythology and fantasy, with constant awareness that this is set in Ancient Greek times. The lavish descriptions of the palace and the food impart a distinctive smell and sense of place, rooted in an ancient time with lush olives and roasting meats, a sea breeze across the island, and hunts in woodlands.

Yet, as for any teenager, there is the struggle to have independence (and for this Stephan is granted a view to his future as the heir to the throne), and yet a teen’s pull to the family as a safe retreat. Being a teenager is about recognising the threats to family from the outside, but also coming to terms with the fact that the family itself may not be the safe haven one imagined it – parents aren’t infallible.

Womack does this cleverly with his weaving of the ancient myths – from the doubts over the queen’s fidelity (did she mate with a bull to create a minotaur?), the threat of conflict from Athens, and most importantly with Stephan’s siblings. His feisty sister, Ariadne, is a constant companion and fellow fighter, who guides him through the labyrinth of the palace as well as through the web of intrigue. His little brother, Aster, is not fully developed in some way (the reader is left to suppose he has some mental disability) – and yet Aster is pivotal to the story – and Stephan shows a wonderful brotherly protectiveness towards him from the start.

Yet, above all else, this is a classic adventure story. Whether the reader is well-versed in Ancient Greek myth, or is approaching this book with no prior knowledge, it’s a rollercoaster of a ride through the politics of royalty, the fantasy of beasts and gods, and yet one which retains the realism of teenage hooks about family, friendship and first attraction.

The reader feels assured in the writer’s deft craftsmanship. Womack’s shows this in his threading of themes throughout – from references to metals and blood (this is not one for the faint-hearted), to the sense of being in the ancient world with questions about who wields power and fate. But all the time the reader feels that this is not too unfamiliar territory to grasp – not too far removed from the modern world.

There is gore throughout – from the excitement of the hunt, to the rawness of scraping cheeks with nails to express grief, to the laying out of sacrificial bodies and the spilling of blood; Womack telling the tale of people who saw their destinies in the entrails of animals. The author’s excitement at the energy of classical mythology oozes from the book.

An excellent, and rather visceral entry into the ‘classical’ canon for today’s teens. Age 10+ years. You can buy it here.

Contains reference to sacrificial death and adultery.