Stephen Cook, Guardian Education, March 16th 2004
If you suggest to Barbara Bell that she's the JK Rowling of the school text-book, she smiles ruefully. "Would that I had that level of royalties", she says. "But there was an article in Corriere dell Sera in Italy last summer saying that Minimus had done for Latin what Harry Potter has done for children's reading."
She estimates that it is being used in about 2,000 primary schools - around one in 10 - and that half of these are in the state sector, where there was virtually no Latin teaching when it was first published four years ago.
This week sees the publication Minimus Secundus, a sequel for 10 to 13 year-olds, which features the same family in first-century Roman Britain with their cat Vibrissa ("Whiskers") and the resident mouse, Minimus. Again, it's an engaging mix of strip cartoons, historical information and stories from myth. "Minimus is more than a book" says Bell, head of classics at Clifton High, a girls' independent school in Bristol. "It's a mission to get Latin into all the other schools that aren't using it yet. That's why we've got the primary Latin project, which offers training for teachers, a grant fund to help people buy the books, and a volunteer teachers' scheme.
"In four years, it's sold all these copies and we've found ourselves running an international project. Twenty per cent of the sale is overseas, mainly in the US and Australia, and there's going to be an Italian edition."
Further evidence of the book's success is found in more than 1,000 letters Bell has received from children containing highly unexpected remarks such as "Latin is cool" and "Latin is the only thing I go to school for." She also tells the story of a petition by pupils at Christ Church primary in Bristol, which persuaded the head not to axe the year 6 Latin club.
The idea for the book came when she was secretary of the Joint Association for Classical Teachers and received letters from parents and teachers lamenting the lack of a fresh and simple Latin primer. At the same time, both main political parties were urging the earlier teaching of languages.
"I was also concerned about children's understanding of English" says Bell. "In the mid-90s, children were hardly reading and the vocabulary even of bright kids was so poor. They had no idea of the structure of sentences, and while many say that didn't matter, I think it does. When you mentioned a verb, for example, there would be glazed faces. How can you expect them to pick up the tools of the trade, the parts of speech, prefixes and suffixes and so on? I learnt all that through Latin, and I decided to use the same approach. So Minimus is partly about teaching English through Latin, and it links with many other things primary children are supposed to be doing: English and literacy, obviously, and also history, because most primary schools study the Romans in Britain."
She and her advisers decided to use the British connection by setting Minimus in Vindolanda, the Roman garrison near Hadrian's Wall, where a shower of rain fortunately thwarted the attempt of the commander Flavius in 102 AD to burn the camp records, inscribed on wood. The Vindolanda tablets, now in the British Museum, contain details of garrison life that form the basis of Bell's stories about Flavius and his family. In Minimus Secundus, the family moves to York.
At Peppard primary school near Henley in Oxfordshire last week, there was every sign the new book would prove as popular as its predecessor. Four girls from the after-school Latin club fell upon it and started catching up with the characters. "Look, Candidus has got a moustache" says one. "That's new Minimus - with a Roman shield," says another. There are eight children in the Peppard club. They are taught by retired volunteers Oliver Makower, a former textile company executive, and Valerie Phelps, one of the governors. Activities have included a play about the Sirens from the Odyssey and Christmas carols sung in Latin.
One of the club conventions is to call out "ping" whenever a Latin word is spotted that forms the root of an English word. "They've picked up words like porcus for pig, and sordidus and obesus" says Makower. "But they tend to think that Vindolanda has something to do with windows, so it doesn't always work."
It's clear that one of the things the children enjoy most is the strip cartoons by Helen Forte, another classics teacher who also specialises in art. "The drawings are very special," says Makow'er. "They really relate to the text so when you get something like 'omnes rident' 'everybody smiles', it comes across beautifully in the illustration."
Many of the children say their favourite Latin word is euge meaning "hooray!" One girl also recalls mater and pater, and another remembers improbus for naughty and counts fluently up to 10 in Latin. Their favourite stories from the first book are Pandora's box, the fall of Icarus, and the Sirens.
"The sirens sing and try to make the sailors sail towards the island and crash into the rocks," says one girl. "When I was a siren in the play I had a white dress with lots of different coloured bits of material hanging off it like feathers."