We’re finally off to Ancient Rome, and taking a slightly retro route there first with Mr Benn Gladiator by the inimitable David McKee. We love David McKee. Elmer is a staple here and I’ve lost count of the patchwork elephants we’ve painted over the past few years, but by far H’s favourite David McKee book is Not Now, Bernard – a darkly humorous little story about a boy and a monster. We haven’t read any Mr Benn before, but this seemed like a fairly good place to start! I found this copy on a fieldtrip to Belsay Hall a couple of years back – they have an excellent second-hand book shop, well worth checking out if you’re there for a visit.
This particular story is a later addition to the Mr Benn canon, and was published by Andersen Press in 2001. Somehow the Mr Benn TV show was a regular fixture in my own Very 90s Childhood, so this was a big nostalgia hit for me! McKee’s illustrations are always so appealing – and the cover is pretty cheerful – so it didn’t take much to persuade H to give it a go at story time.
All the trouble starts, of course, when Mr Benn tries on a gladiator outfit at the costume shop. The story is written in McKee’s usual effective prose style: simple language, subtle humour, clear sequence of actions. I was a little apprehensive about how much H would ‘get’ the story – especially as I’m not sure he’s encountered the concept of a ‘gladiator’.. or even a costume shop.. (!) before – but he loved it! The illustrations played a big role: he spent ages scrutinising the details, asking lots of questions about what he could see, and figuring out what was going on in each scene.
The mix of intricate colourful double-page illustrations with the accessible narrative worked well to hold his attention the whole way through. The illustrations are really quite special – the perspectives and repeating patterns add a nice element of the surreal to the whole thing. And there’s so many interesting little features to spot! H was a big fan of the scenes with lots of people, or the lions with very cross human-like faces; I liked the architecture of the Roman city best, especially the inner mazes of the amphitheatre:
Given the potentially pretty gory and gruesome subject matter of gladiators in the arena, I wasn’t sure if it would all be suitable for H – at 4, he vaguely has a concept of things ‘dying’ from learning about life-cycles at nursery (and the unexpected departure of the nursery bunny) but that’s about it. But nothing to worry about, of course – McKee finds a way around any gladiatorial-maiming-terminology that is a bit too explicit for the younger age group by employing a particularly excellent turn of phrase instead: squidging. H approved!
The story also playfully introduces some basic features of the Roman world, including the building of roads, and the surveyor appears with his plot-significant groma at a few points. This feature in particular would make it a nice way to introduce some further investigation into the Romans and their famous road-building in Roman Britain for KS1/2 history. I’ll definitely be coming back to the video below with H! Now to work out a complementary road-building activity..