Q&A with Accomplished Greek Author of Children Books Maria Kamoulakou

Children's book author Maria Kamoulakou (L). Photo: Maria Kamoulakou

By Aliz Koletas

Maria Kamoulakou grew up reading Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey as her favorite bedtime story in Greece. Between that and her love of visiting archaeological sites and museums in Greece, she later became an archaeologist before marrying her husband and moving to the US.

After battling cancer and evaluating life on different grounds, Kamoulakou decided to combine her favorite things- ancient Greece and reading- to help children understand and learn about famous Greek plays.

Mrs Maria Kamoulakou-Marangoudakis

I was born and raised in Pangrati in the late 1960’s, within walking distance from downtown Athens. That was a time when there were still dirt roads near the heart of Athens; when children roamed in the streets of Pangrati, playing or cycling without any danger of being hit by a car. When our neighborhood had mostly single-story houses and spacious courtyards with fragrant flowers and fruit trees.I was lucky to have been born and raised in Athensat a time when summer nights smelled of jasmine and evening primrose; when adults still lit huge bonfires in the streets on the 23rd of June to celebrate St. John the Baptist, and we, kids, tossed our 1st of May floral wreaths in the flames and then competed in long jumping over the fire. That was a time I hold very dear to my heart.

I come from a-middle-class family and you could say I am half an islander, half a mainlander. My father, who had a shoe store for over 40 years in Ermou Street in Athens, is a genuine Laconian from the Gytheion area. His surname, Kamoulakos, is believed to be Latin based. Similar names are attested on ceramic tiles from Germany and on an altar in Celtic France at the time of the Roman conquest! Of course, we cannot prove a Roman, or Celtic descent, but it is an interesting piece of information. My mother is a-second-generation Athenian with ties to the islands of Corfu, Naxos and Kasos. Her ancestors in Kasos were ship owners and took part in the Greek War of Independence. We are also very proud of my grandfather, on my mother’s side,who served and retired as an officer in the famous battleship Averof.

Children’s book author Maria Kamoulakou. Photo: Maria Kamoulakou

TNH: What made you want to be a children’s author?

MK: If, back in 2011, someone had told me that I would be writing children’s books, I wouldn’t have believed it. Yet, here I am five years later being interviewed by you, Aliz, as a children’s book author.

It all began during a spectacular New England blizzard. It was February 2013, I had just returned from a trip to Europe to visit my family, and I was all snuggled up by the fireplace, reading a Greek historical novel, when it suddenly hit me! Why not write a children’s book based on an ancient Greek story? Having gone through a-ten-month cancer ordeal I was in great need of physical and mental healing. Even though my body was recovering at a slow but steady pace, my spirit was thirsty for action. The need to address children became more and more prevalent in my mind.

As a Greek archaeologist and an admirer of the classical Greek spirit, I felt compelled to communicate the timeless values of peace, humanity, dignity, justice and friendship to young readers between the ages of 7 and 10; to create alternative stories to traditional “prince charming” fairy tales. In Greece, there are beautiful adaptations of ancient Greek plays that introduce young readers in a fun way to masterpieces of classical Greek literature. My favorite ancient Greek playwright, Aristophanes, immediately came to mind.

Our planet is in desperate need of peace. We live in very turbulent times and millions of people are on the move because of war, hunger and poverty. The United States is located in a safe and sheltered part of the world, but my country, Greece, is in the midst of the worst immigration crisis in modern history. Desperation has led thousands of people from war zones in the Near East to cross the Aegean Sea in overcrowded rafts that very often capsize, or simply sink. They are mostly families with young children who had never laid eyes on the sea before and can’t swim. Thousands have perished in the Greek seas…

Children’s book author Maria Kamoulakou’s books. Photo: Maria Kamoulakou

Aristophanes, too, lived in very turbulent times in ancient Athens. He experienced a terrible 30 year war (431-404 BC) between Sparta and Athens that left his city defeated, weakened, and humiliated. During that period of hardship, Aristophanes entertained the Athenians with his comedies and through his work he preached for peace, humanity, justice and dignity amongst people. At the end of the war, the Athenians honored their favorite comedy writer with an olive wreath for his anti-war sentiments.

I turned to the most fairytale-like of his play, “The Birds” (Ornithes)for inspiration. After an extensive labor of over three years, The Adventures of Hope & Trusty: Sky Cloud City was born!

TNH: What are the books about?

MK: Sky Cloud City is a free adaptation of the play “The Birds” (Ornithes)by Aristophanes. It has no reference to politics and the two main characters (a pair of old men fed up with life in the city) have been replaced with two children with allegorical names: a girl named Hope and a boy named Trusty. Together they purchase a pair of magical crows and venture beyond their known world into the Land of The Birds. There they meet with King Hoopoe and his subjects. Their request to stay and explore this new world needs to be approved by a bird Assembly. At first the assembled birds react very hostile towards the two friends. Exercising wit and fast thinking, Hope and Trusty persuade the birds to unite with a common goal: to build a city in the clouds and to share with Zeus the supremacy of the skies.

The Adventures of Hope & Trusty: Sky Cloud City is meant to be the first book in a series based on popular plays by Aristophanes. The second one is due at the end of2018 and is based on the play Eirene, or “Peace”.

Sky Cloud City is accompanied by an artfully designed Activity Book that is both educational and entertaining. It includes information on Aristophanes and his play “The Birds”, discussion questions, a drawing challenge, a crossword puzzle, facts about birds, coloring pages, decorative calligraphy, a maze, and cut-out masks.

The illustrator ofSky Cloud City is Aspasia Arvanitis, a self-taught artist in Agawam, MA and the cover art for the Activity Book was designed by Mary Blaxland, an art graduate living in Springfield, MA.

At this point, I should mention that every single person who worked on Sky Cloud Citylives in Massachusetts. We tried hard to stay local and we happily achieved that goal. From the illustrator, to the editor, the proofreader, the photographers, the publisher (Pierce Press/Gigglequick Books), the graphic designer, the scanning and printing facilities, we are happy to say that Sky Cloud City is in every respect:

TNH: What has been the reaction from people after reading your books?

MK: The Adventures of Hope & Trusty: Sky Cloud Citywas printed last April and officially launched in Boston on September 17, 2017. As you see, it hasn’t been around for long but the feedback I am getting so far from children is very encouraging. Not only do theyenjoy the story, but some of them ask when am I going to write the second book in the series! Recently a mother read it twice in one day to her 5-year-old daughter upon her request! The Activity Book is also popular with children, especially the coloring pages, the maze, the crossword puzzle, the finger puppets and the cut-out masks.

TNH: Your favorite part of this adventure

MK: I think the most favorite part of this adventure has been the interaction with people. I have two amazingfelted hand puppets from Poland: a hoopoe bird and a peacock. Their maker is a very talented lady, AlicjaPiotrowska, who has a store on etsy.com called FilcAlki. It is mere delight watching kids reacting to King Hoopoe and the peacock. Some are fearless and ask to hold them. Others simply caress them as pets, while the most timid and shy ones hide behind their parent’s legs!I have met wonderful kids, parents, grandparents who showed genuine interest for the books and chatted about Greece, Aristophanes, my future projects, and much, much more. Going to book festivals and interacting with young readers makes me feel like a child again! It fills my heart with warmth and love.

TNH: Exciting upcoming events or how people can learn more about your books

MK: Since last AprilSky Cloud City has been in numerous events and festivalsthroughout New England: from Massachusetts to Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire. We have been at the Hartford Greek Festival, the Bookstock Literary Festival in Vermont, the Boston Book Festival, the StrawberyBanke Museum in New Hampshire, the Springfield City Library, the 4th Annual Rhode Island Author Expo, to name a few. We are constantly looking for opportunities to exhibit the two books and converse with the public. If you live in New England, look for Sky Cloud Cityat your local Greek festivals. We are easy to spot! Just search for the lady holding a hoopoe bird puppet!

More information about upcoming events and new projects are frequently uploaded online at skycloudcity.com, or mariakamoulakou.com, and on facebook.com/SkyCloudCity.

The two books can be purchased online at skycloudcity.com. Print on demand is available only for Sky Cloud Citythrough amazon and all its international sites (amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.au, amazon.fr, amazon.de, amazon.co.uk, etc.). The Activity Book can be purchased only through skycloudcity.com, or ebay.com.

In the greater Springfield, MA, area the books are available for purchase at Big Y super market on Cooley Street, Wonderland Giftsat Tower Square and New Beginnings Hair Salon in East Longmeadow. Beyond Springfield, the two books are currently available at Blue Umbrella Books in Westfield, MA, and beyond Massachusetts at G. Willikers Toy Shop in historic downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire.