Friday, 23 November 2012

Seven stories of stories

As a sucker for (most) children's literature, I was thrilled to learn lately about Seven Stories in Newcastle upon Tyne. (If you are similarly inclined, you'll need to set aside a few minutes to enjoy this rich and satisfying website.) 

About a month ago I had the chance to spend a very special day there.

With innumerable and sometimes unsteady sources of funding, and immeasurable effort by a dedicated team, a seven-storey Victorian mill by the Ouseburn River has become the National Centre for Children's Books. It is magical, and I want to live there ...

The bookshop alone is a wonderful, colourful, cave of treasures where you can lose yourself for hours. 

And in the Artist's Attic you can listen and take part in the telling of a story...

On the other five floors are spaces to create stuff, to write and draw stuff, to listen to stuff, to dress up in stuff, to eat stuff and to see stuff done by authors and illustrators as they put together their story books.

The day I was there, there was one exhibition to do with Cressida Cowell's Dragon series. They had murals about Vikings and dragons, staff dressed in relevant costumes, dragons to make or buy, and a Viking ship to try out.

Another exhibition displayed many of Julia Donaldson's heroes, including the Gruffalo and The Troll with glorious murals, interactive listening and drawing stations, and notebooks and drafts of the stories and the illustrations in the making.

There were lots of visitors who were a bit younger than me (!), but it seemed that I was not the only one who was sad that I had to leave when I did ...

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Ancient Greece: modern school syllabi

Last week, Connie (my publisher) and I presented The Boy with Two Heads to two school groups. We enjoyed our time with them, and came away with some useful feedback. Part of which was that, in some schools this autumn (2012), Year 6 is covering aspects of Ancient Greece.

So this is a message to teachers of Year 6 History in England - and others in Classics departments everywhere: 

Please take a look at my time-slip novel, The Boy with Two Heads

I think you will find it relevant. 

In my story, a modern girl 'slips' back in time to live the life of a teenage boy in Ancient Athens and Olympia during the Games of 432 BC. It's a bit spooky because he has borrowed her consciousness while she lies in a coma in 2010 ... Later in the story, he is described in an oracular prophesy as having 'two heads', hence the title.

There is a detailed and helpful review of the story by Carla Nayland here.

I wanted my readers to feel as if they had really been to Ancient Greece. I lived in Athens for more than twenty years and so had plenty of opportunity to research and find help so as to get things as correct as possible. People who have read my book say they learned a lot painlessly! (Amazon reviews here.)

As for relevance to the works of Homer that some schools are focusing on this year, much of life in 5th century BC Greece was similar to how it was for Homer's heroes in The Iliad hundreds of years before. The gods still intervened in every facet of human lives; men still trained hard to be soldiers and served in the army; the Olympic and other Games were still held in honour of the gods with events based on that training; war was still the norm rather than the exception. 

And Homer himself is mentioned in my story. He held an important position in the culture of the time. 

For instance, during a sea-voyage, the passengers keep each other entertained by telling stories. Molon, a rather annoying young man, is one of them.
From Everyday Things in Ancient Greece
by M and C H B Quennel
The captain spent the day on the top deck, controlling the rudder. Molon lay near him, reciting Homer out loud. He told with relish of how Circe turned Odysseus’ men into pigs and made them eat acorns and chestnuts. After a while the captain asked Molon to shut up. Molon went down to the lower deck and carried on under his breath.

People who really existed also appear in the story. One is Panainos, an artist who painted huge official murals depicting the history of Athens. Themis (the fictional Boy of the title) is his apprentice and in this extract is depressed. Frog (also fictional) is Themis' body servant.
   ‘You need to get up,' laughed Frog. 'Panainos wants to talk to you about something important. And the food is duck and mushroom stew.’    
  Themis groaned and rolled out of bed.
  He ate in silence while Panainos chatted on about some battle in Homer that he was going to paint when he got back to Athens.
Artist's reconstruction of Ancient Olympia, about 100 BCE.
The Altis is the area with the large temple in the middle.
  ‘You need a walk, my boy,’ said Panainos at last, as he stood up. ‘Come with me.’
  Themis followed meekly, his mind dull and empty.
  They walked towards the entrance to the Altis. It was early evening and there had been rain, so everything sparkled with drops in the slanting rays of the sun. But Themis was watching his feet as he walked on the paving stones. His sandals were getting too small.

I very much enjoyed writing this book, which took more than two years. But I hope it isn't too obvious that I was once a teacher myself! I thank Carla for her unsolicited review and thoughts, and I invite you to comment below ...

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Nakedness (of men) in Ancient Greece

At a reading of The Boy with Two Heads yesterday, in Wigton Library, I showed pictures of vase paintings of (male) naked athletes. 

These three boys of differing body types are at an Athenian gymnasium where middle and upper class men and boys trained almost every day. The word 'gymnasium' comes from the Greek for naked, gymnos (spelled gamma, ipsilon, mi, ni, omicron, sigma - there are no Greek fonts for this blog!) 

My audience of year 6 students asked, "Why were they naked?" If I remember correctly, my answer was along the lines that 
1)  it was only the men and boys, and they did not see why not
2)  the weather was often hot
3)  they had no problem showing off their physical beauty. 

Concerning point 1, I think they did not see "why not" because their religion did not suggest they should cover their bodies. The Christian Bible was written many centuries later. Genesis chapter 3 vividly describes how Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and realised they were naked. They made aprons of fig leaves to cover themselves, but God ejected them from the Garden of Eden anyway. For Christians this has resulted in a belief through the centuries that we need to be ashamed of the parts of our bodies to do with reproduction. I don't know the Q'ran or other religions' bibles, but perhaps there are similar stories. In Ancient Greece (and some other religions, even now), such parts of the body were often seen as the sacred means of continuing the family and the tribe. There was no shame or guilt attached to them.

Concerning point 2, the weather in Greece, especially in July and August when athletics competitions were mainly held, can be very hot (at least 35 degrees C in the shade). So any clothes can feel unnecessary.
Men's 'chiton' or robe

Ionian Women's 'chiton'
And Ancient Greek clothes were mainly just pieces of cloth attached to the body by belts and/or brooches. This made them impractical when it came to sport. There's a story in Pausanias (I think, or it might be Homer. I can't find it again, of course!) that in the very early days, the runners wore loincloths. During one race, one runner's loincloth came off as he ran and he won! So it became the norm for athletes to train and compete without any clothes at all to impede them.

the Discobolos of Myron
This leads into point 3 above. Being naked was a way of showing off an athlete's perfect physique. The body-perfect was a theme for aspiration, discussion and artistic debate even more then, it seems, than it is now! Larissa Bonfante has written about 'nudity as a costume' in classical times.

So in the right circumstances, nakedness could be not only acceptable but desirable. However, on this blustery, damp day in early winter in northern England, those circumstances seem a long way away and a long time ago!