Monday, February 19, 2007


“Yes, you were looking for something?”
“A sense of the miraculous in every day life.”
The Mask of Zorro.

Children’s literature is a term extremely difficult to classify. For it comprises both those books which are selected and read by children themselves, as well as those vetted as 'appropriate for children' by authorities, for example: teachers, reviewers, scholars, and parents. Some would have it that children's literature is literature written specially for children; however, many books that were originally intended for adults are now commonly thought of as works for children, such as Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The opposite has also been known to occur, where works of fiction originally written or marketed for children are given recognition as adult books; Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, for example, both won Whitbread Awards, which are typically awarded to novels for adults.
Children’s literature is also a good indicator of the health of a particular language. When books are being published in any given language for children and children are reading them, then one can safely say that the odds look good for that child to continue to read literature in that language when it becomes an adult. Conversely, a problem arises when children’s books are written to prove appoint and are not accessible or desirable to the children in question.
Over the years, far seeing members of the Greek community in Australia have made various efforts to write books for children in Greek. The early ones, written at a time when Greek was still a first language for most Australian-born Greek children, were plausible as an attempt to prove that Greek literature could still be produced in a community that had been dislocated from its motherland. This notwithstanding, direct imports from Greece were always considered superior to the native product, reinforcing in the subconscious mind of the community that though we are economically, politically and socially independent of Greece, we cringe at any thought of cultural self-determination save for any excuses or allowances that we make for ourselves to explain our acculturation.
In the late seventies and early eighties, when multiculturalism was a new and exciting concept, a plethora of grants were provided for the writing of ‘ethnic’ language and bilingual children’s books. I remember finding some of these in my school library (for this was a time when books existed in school libraries for migrant and non-english speaking background primary students) and marvelling at the staid, stilted and ideologically clumsy manner in which they tried to infuse “New Australians” with “Australian values.” Nonetheless, they were in Greek and they did assist to broaden one’s horizons and expand vocabulary. Fishing them out of the school hopper after they had been cancelled and discarded by the library a few years later for non-use, I still maintain some of these books at home; as a reminder of a valiant effort and what could have been.
The simple fact of the matter is that reading requires effort. Reading Greek, especially if you are a child and the vast majority of your daily discourse is conducted in English, requires even more effort and we live in an era where everything must be instant, “fun and easy,” “lite n’ easy,” accomplished at the touch of a button and with tangible benefits. As a result, it is futile to insist that Greek children’s books are able to entertain and enthrall Greek-Australian children to the extent that their English counterparts do. After all, Greek in the new millenium, is a gerontogloss, to be utilised only for understanding our grandparents’ injunctions, to which a simple grunt is all that is necessary to communicate that the message is received and understood.
In this context, some of few the children’s books that continue to be published by Australian-Greek authors, are downright insulting. Their authors direct the level of the language and subject matter at their peers in order to extract affirmation and kudos from them and in doing so, subconsciously betray their own linguistic and cultural ignorance of the generation they are supposed to be writing for. Others, who write nostalgically in the manner of the books they read as children may mean well, but dated cautionary tales, lengthy lectures and motifs belonging to antebellic Greece are of questionable value to Australian-Greek children today. One author, who purported to write a children’s book of popular science even went so far as to display a complete lack of knowledge of the water cycle, filling her book with so many magical and mythical ‘facts’ that its publication was starkly embarassing. This is by far, my favourite children’s book ever. At any rate, the irony of writing children’s books for an audience that will not read them should not be lost on us, as many parallels can be drawn between that and much of the corpus of our collectivised existence.
One author who knows children, is Ekaterini Mpaloukas, not only because she has grandchildren herself but because within her soul lies an innate love for all infants. To speak to her, is to draw warmth from an infinite well of affection and it is this affection that makes her newly-published children’s book: “Zorro: The Adventures of an Australian terrier,” such a great success. “Zorro” is a bilingual book, which means that the natural reaction of each child will be to turn to the English. This is not to be viewed negatively as Konstatina Dounis’ well-constructed translation is both muscular, engaging and of immense linguistic benefit to young readers.
Anticipating the natural tendency, however, Mpaloukas embarks upon a novel innovation. The Greek text, which is simple enough, is designed to be read aloud. Indeed, it reads as if a grandmother has sat her grandchild on her knees and is telling it a story. It is this interraction between the generations that Mpaloukas sees as key to the passing on of language skills, turning on its head the premise that reading is primarily an individual’s activity. Mpaloukas, in her own understated and affectionate way is surreptitously advising us that only cohesion, love and harmony between the generations will ensure the perpetuation of our language and culture.
“Zorro,” which is lovingly transliterated, not as «Ο Ζορρό» but in good Australian-Greek as «ο Ζόρρος» is, coincidentally enough, what my grandmother also called the famous masked avenger. This particular masked avenger is a little terrier, (thankfully left in the Greek as “terrier” and not rendered as the effeminate Modern Greek «τεριέρ») the type any child may identify with in this country and whose choice as a main character is thus inspired, Zorro has a penchant for roguish knavery, dark and devious plots and burglary. Despite this, he is eminently loveable and a hero to boot.
As we follow Zorro’s the masked doggie’s adventures from his birth on a farm in Yarra Junction to the apogee of his fame as television star and hero of the nation, (a plot that is both humorous and full of suspense - guaranteed to enthrall any child) we notice with interest the appearance of several anachronisms. This seems to be a lost Australia, that of twenty to thirty years ago, when fathers worked at C.I.G in Preston and Australia was still possessed of a manufacturing industry. Rather than this acting to alienate the book away from its audience, it actually insinuates itself closer to them. Mpaloukas has masterfully conveyed to the latter generations, snippets of the migrant experience and the prevailing social conditions they had to face in a facile and accessible manner. What is even more refreshing, she achieves this without the need for preaching, or schmaltz. Again this serves to emphasise the role of the older generation as instrumental for children to analyse the world around them and discover their place within the wider social and historical context, both as Greeks and as Australians. Further, this delightful tall tale of a peripatetic pooch may seem implausible but it has that star grandparent quality of almost being true that most grandparent’s tales seem to possess and as such, will immediately endear itself to any reader, regardless of age. Further, as Maria Vamvakinou MP, an avid fan points out, the parallel between a doggie hoarding treasures and of migrants rushing around attempting to acquire wealth and hoard tradition is compelling.
Christos Avramoudas’ illustrations to the text are studied and deep. They capture Mpaloukas’ writing ideology and give life to the sepia coloured world that still exists among the elderly of Northcote and other pockets of Melbourne. His portrayal of sixties and seventies automobiles, Edwardian architecture, corrugated iron roofs, back fences and sandy beaches, all in traditional, bright but earthy ‘Australian’ hues, does much to evoke ‘mythological’ Australia within us. Against this background he cleverly interposes his Greek characters, which remind one intensely of the pictures one would find in their first grade «Αναγνωστικό» or «Ανθολόγιο» but at the same time have an innately timeless, Byzantine quality to them. This is the olde worlde where fathers had moustaches and mothers spent all day cooking in the ktichen and one can only marvel at the way in which this gifted artist has melded together the best and most characteristic visualisations of our romantic conceptions of a by-gone era. The apogee of all the visual masterpieces that richly adorn the book, would have to be on the last page, where the family poses for a photograph in a studio, in honour of their trememdous terrier, canvas painting of Greece in the background. We all have such photographs hidden away in our drawers, whether they be of our parents’ wedding day, or taken in order to send to relatives in Greece. Christos Avramoudas’ illustrations are not only a homage to the past then, but also a key to its visualisation within the appropriate context.
It is not often that a book offers itself with so much love and affection to its readers, or which can evoke a sense of the miracoluos with such ease of skill. Quite possibly this reflects Mpaloukas’ conception of the Greek community as a large family, to who she, like so many others is a grandmother. Let’s face it, grandmothers after all, are just mothers with a lot more frosting or, if you like, just antique little girls. They also know what children love and all children are sure to love reading and listening to their loved ones read the adventures of Zorro to them again and again and again. If there is a drawback, it will be the fact that thousands of Australian-Greek children out in suburbia, as a result of the combnined efforts of Mbaloukas, Avramoudas and Dounis, will, as we speak, be intent upon cloaking their beloved pet, masking its muzzle and expecting it to perform suprabestial activities, all the while singing: “I’ve sewn him a black cape/ put dark glasses on him’ he’s become a thief/ carting home treasures...” But then again, Ogden Nash knew what he was talking about when he said: “When Grandmother enters the door, discipline flies out the window.” Woof! Woof!


First published in NKEE on 19 February 2007