The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines “atheneum” as being originally the Temple of Athena in which professors taught and orators and poets rehearsed their compositions. A more modern meaning is a literary or scientific club, and, by extension a literary club-room or meeting room.
In this dark, oversized picture book, which is not quite a graphic novel, Vancouver author Trevor Newland draws readers into an atheneum which is an antiquarian bookstore. The young protagonist has been running through a dim, rainy landscape peopled with bullies and mobs. Then comes a whispered suggestion that there may be a safe place for him somewhere.
Then, there he is, the proprietor of the Atheneum, standing in the doorway of his shop with his monocle and a waistcoat, the latter straining over his protuberant stomach, as he asks the boy inside.
Welcome! How may I help, young squire?
Speak up lad, speak up. Or...oh, I see...
A voiceless visitor. Hmmm...a most perplexing predicament.
To find a voice of your own, you must be very bold.
Very bold indeed.
The old man holds up a ticket to the boy that says Today Only! One Free Adventure of a Lifetime! Such an offer, given with the enjoinder:
Off you go now. Find your own voice.
And remember: fortune favors...
Loaded up with a cloth satchel full of books chosen from the store’s overflowing shelves, our young hero sets off on his adventure. Not all young children will be familiar with Moby Dick, Treasure Island and the other classic literary tales that are referenced here, but this is a great opportunity for teachers and parents to introduce them. Through the sky, under the sea and over cobblestoned streets the boy is chased, doused and otherwise harried by the larger-than-life figures from out of the books. Advice about learning boldness comes both from the book characters and from the books themselves.
At the Red Queen’s Royal Flamingo Croquet Match the action comes to a halt. The Queen screeches:
“STOP HIM! HE’S BROKEN THE RULES! OFF WITH HIS HEAD!”
on which the Mad Hatter comments from the tea table,
“Breaking the Queen’s rules? Why that’s very bold indeed.”
“SEIZE THEM! OFF...WITH HIS HEAD. BREAK THE RULES,
WILL YOU, YOUNG GUTTERSNIPE!!! ANY LAST WORDS???!!!” [the Queen shouts out]
Threatened by the Queen’s guards, then accosted again by Long John Silver, who wants his books as booty and would rather see someone walk the plank than have his head cut off, the boy comes to a realization.
Maybe being bold and finding a voice of your own
was a little about...bluff...and deductive reasoning...
and dash and daring do...and even breaking some rules.
But it seemed that being bold and finding a voice of your own
was more about just...speaking up for yourself.
The boy adamantly refuses to hand over his books to the pirate, telling him off with a resounding “THOSE ARE MY BOOKS! THEY GIVE ME A VOICE! GO FIND YOUR OWN TREASURE!” Suddenly the boy and the reader find themselves back at the Atheneum where the old man dozes and the shelves are crammed with treasure in the form of more books, more adventures.
The sepia and black illustrations contribute a great deal of atmosphere to the book, and the details which show all kinds of buildings, people and animals reward close examination. There are many cropped images, and action is seen from unusual angles. Because a number of the pages are wordless, the reader needs to become a careful viewer, too. One of my favourite spreads is the one where the boy first enters the Atheneum. Here is a vast, shadowy hall with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, lined from top to bottom with bookshelves. The boy is in the foreground, looking timidly down to the illumination at the end where the old man stands in silhouette. No text here, but such a lot of atmosphere!
The author has included a nod to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman which might just be his own favourite. It appears on the title page, on the second page when all the shenanigans begin, and at the finish of the book when it takes the boy off to dreamland. The last page shows the old man falling asleep over the same book with a little banner over his lap which says Never the end.
The Atheneum would be a fun outing for an older independent reader, and, if there is an adult who wants to look over that reader’s shoulder, so much the better.
Ellen Heaney is a retired children’s librarian living in Coquitlam, British Columbia.