The entire notion of a diary is that it’s mostly girly stuff with sappy sob-stories and heartbreaking growing-up pains. Richard Platt’s Roman Diary as illustrated by David Parkins – debunks this entire misconception about diaries altogether by introducing their formidable four-book Diary series which began with Castle Diary, then Pirate Diary, and Egyptian Diary, with Roman Diary being the newest book (and hopefully not the last) in the series.
The subtitle of the book is pretty long: The Journal of Iliona of Mytilini, who was captured by Pirates and sold as a Slave in Rome, AD 107. Despite the length, it already gives the reader a pretty clear idea as to what the entire book is about.
As an academic, I must say that I am so amazed to finally see an actual picture book that is historical fiction in its essence. I am so impressed with the way that the picture book is effective in integrating the make-believe aspect with solid evidence and with such stunningly accurate historical detail at that – and such genius illustrations. I could just imagine the amount of research that both authors needed to go through in order to come up with a veritable tome of information – yet the narrative remains achingly real as well, since it is seen through the eyes of young Iliona.
The book begins by providing its reader with a glimpse of how it was like during Iliona’s period (AD 107) and what it is like to be a young Greek maiden writing her thoughts down on papyrus:
“To help in this project, my mother has given me a writing set: a bundle of fine goose quills tied with a purple ribbon, a knife to sharpen them with, a knife sharpener to sharpen the knife with, a traveling ink pot, and a roll of the finest papyrus I have ever seen. Its surface is as smooth as the skin on Apollo’s back.”
This point alone is enough to raise quite a number of discussion in class – the fact that diaries are now typed, saved, and encrypted (if you’re smart and you know how to do this with a password – instead of the actual lock and key in the usual pen and paper diaries) in Microsoft Word – or in other computer software for that matter.
As I was growing up, I can recall Doogie Howser typing furiously away in his personal computer, then later on Felicity, also a very popular TV series for teens and young adults, recording her thoughts on a voice recorder. Hence, the means through which one is able to collect and save one’s thoughts evidently vary given technological advances and one’s historical period. Children could be asked to imagine what it would be like ten years from now.
Iliona is an ideal character to really explore in detail as well. She comes from a very wealthy family, and she strikes me as a sensitive, learned, and honorable young girl. Her entire family (both her parents and her younger brother Apollo) were traveling to Egypt and was about to live in a huge mansion in Alexandria for two years – when their ship was taken over by pirates during their fifth day at sea and in a flash “Apollo and I have lost everything we loved and cherished” (p. 6). Orphaned, alone in the world, they were taken by the pirates to what is known as the very center of the world, Rome, and sold by pirates to the highest bidder. In Iliona’s case, it was the Roman Senator Gaius Martius – she fetched quite a high price, since she knows Latin and knows her “letters” – thus her papyrus and ink bottles were not taken from her, since it apparently raises her market value.
The reader now gets to know Rome intimately through Iliona’s explorations of the city. She talks about what it is like to visit the famous Nero Baths – which reminds me of the modern-day spa that we have – although I am quite certain it would pale in comparison to the grandeur that has been described (and beautifully illustrated) in the pages of the book. Platt and Parkins were so astute in including little details such as what a caldarium, tepidarium, and strigil are without all these tiny information appearing contrived or forced into the story altogether.
Iliona also takes us to senate halls, shares with us what it is like to see the emperor parading in the city streets with a slave holding a wreath and apparently whispering in the emperor’s ear “Remember that you’re only human” all throughout the parade. The reader also gains a clearer awareness of Roman architecture, the plumbing system (what happens when the aqueduct gets broken), the sewers, and yes the Roman belief systems/religion.
I like this particular picture when Iliona’s mistress offered a chicken in the temple to find out whether it was an auspicious time for them to travel. Similar to reading tea leaves or tarot cards during the present time, the priest during Iliona’s period opens the bird’s innards in the temple, studies its guts and gives out its verdict – a direct pipeline from the gods to the chicken’s innards.
I also enjoyed how Iliona described Roman banquets. Talk about Roman grandeur in the extreme – mountains of food, dancing girls, African musicians, fire-eating dwarves – the works! And yes, I like this part where the butcher brought what is known as “dormice” cooked in a spit – and yes, boys and girls, the name itself should already clue you in that these are rats “skinned and sewn up along the belly.” According to the portrayal in the book, they’re supposed to be extremely expensive and delicious. Eeeew. Makes you feel lucky to be born in the 21st century, doesn’t it.
What struck me most as I was reading through the book is not so much the inhumanity of war, the atavistic games being played in the Roman amphitheater or the fact that live Roman theater includes nudity (I didn’t know that!) – but rather the manner in which they successfully conveyed the humane facet of slavery – very incongruous ideations, but the authors were able to pull it off by not sounding preachy, overly sentimental, and annoyingly dramatic. It also presents a balanced view – while Iliona was treated almost like family by her master and mistress, her brother Apollo who stayed in the farm was not as fortunate.
For educators (this is ideal for around Primary 3 to Primary 6 even), you might be happy to note that the book also includes extensive Notes in the last few pages wherein the authors discussed in detail (and using exquisite drawings) what the sports and games were like, their religion, the structure of the army (and yes the soldiers’ equipment), the technology, and even a brief and concise timeline of Roman history. I was so fortunate to have found this book just lying in one of the shelves in the community library. I have a feeling that the Singaporean community would take very well to this since as far as I know, parents are keener in giving them reading materials that have factual information in them to again, provide support and scaffolding for their exams. I find this to be a perfect blend of information packaged in a story-telling fashion as narrated by a young Greek slave in Rome. Truly a rare find, and a must-read to all, young and old alike.
If you wish to know more about the author Richard Platt (who has won so many awards – several of which were from his Diaries series), click here to be taken to his website. Richard Platt currently stays in Kent, England.
The genius illustrator, David Parkins has been illustrating since the 70s and has just recently moved from the UK to Ontario, Canada. He has also illustrated the Egyptian Diary which I also hope to review for GatheringBooks. Click here to be taken to his website.References: Richard Platt’s Homepage – http://www.richardplatt.co.uk/ Richard Platt’s picture as found in his homepage Book cover – http://willowlanereviews.blogspot.com/2010_02_01_archive.html David Parkins Homepage – http://www.davidparkins.com/ More information about David Parkins – http://www.davidparkins.com/all_about_me.htm Doogie Howser photo: http://www.mochatini.org/2009/03/02/doogie-howser-theme-snl-short/ Felicity thumbnail – http://www.ultimatedisney.com/felicity-season4.html Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos were taken by feature writer.