Monday, April 19, 2021

Author Emma Vanderpool on Her Latest Latin Novellas

The debut titles in Bolchazy-Carducci’s Latin-language easy reader series are available both at our website and via Amazon! Both books provide an immersive introduction to the multifaceted world of augury and birds in ancient Rome. Explore Latin: Avēs uses fewer than one-hundred unique Latin words to provide basics information about birds in a Roman context, with copious color images reinforcing the text. Augury Is for the Birds explains elements of augury through a relatable coming-of-age story in 144 unique words. There are three forthcoming follow-up novellas that will build on the vocabulary, themes, and concepts established in Explore Latin: Avēs and Augury Is for the Birds. 

Emma Vanderpool, award-winning Latin teacher and the author of several self-published Latin novellas, carefully crafted these two books to appeal to students and to be readily comprehensible to beginning Latin learners. Editor Amelia Wallace was pleased to speak to her about her inspirations, writing process, and larger goals. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

AW: How did you choose the topic of augury for your novella series? What themes and key cultural ideas were you hoping to address?           

EV: I was inspired by my first novella, Sacri Pulli: A Tale of War and Chickens, which focused on an instance of augury. I wanted to continue an exploration of this influential practice and its role in history, politics, and military endeavors. Its intersection with so many different areas seemed to make a great place to focus upon.

AW: One of the main goals of these readers is to draw in novice Latin learners with compelling and comprehensible material—a challenge since students may be using different textbooks or learning in very different settings. What strategies did you use to ensure that the language in your books met these two requirements? 

EV: To make sure these novellas are comprehensible, I carefully structured the vocabulary so that I consistently utilized a core vocabulary from book to book while gradually introducing new words. To make sure these novellas were compelling, I added some levity and comedy in the dialogue while still maintaining a focus on the rather complex topic of duty. I hope the combination of these two things will draw different types of students in and keep them reading.

I focused on high frequency vocabulary, drawing on Dickinson College Commentary’s Core Vocabulary, but also did not shy away from incorporating short phrases or vocab words from Cicero’s extant texts that touched on augury. In doing so, I hoped to allow students to read the text, while still learning subject-related vocabulary. 

AW: What sources did you draw on when writing these books? Did any of the material you learned while researching surprise you?

EV: I was able to draw upon my favorite author, Cicero, when researching these books, including his De Divinatione, De Natura Deorum, and De Legibus, to inform my understanding of augury. It was most surprising to realize how fluid the Romans’ understanding of sinistra and dextra was when deciding if a sign was secundum or adversum. 

AW: What process do you use when you first begin writing a novella? Does it change depending on subject matter or intended audience? 

EV: I always set out with an audience in mind. The clearer the audience I have, the easier it is for me to craft my story in terms of plot structure and to select vocabulary. Once I have an audience in mind, I make some “first draft picks” for vocabulary, words that I will need (or really want) to use. From there, I do my round of writing and crafting of the story before allowing any “second draft picks” for vocabulary to make their way into the text as I begin editing. 

AW: In Augury Is for the Birds, we meet the character of Marcus, a Roman boy who is studying augury at the behest of his father. While this book takes place in an ancient setting, I couldn’t help but notice how relatable the central conflict of the story is for modern students. Marcus is at an age where he is exploring who he wants to be while also contending with his parents’ expectations. Did your own work with students around Marcus’s age inform this story? Any other key inspirations for the emotional core of the work?

EV: I definitely had a certain set of beloved middle schoolers in mind when I was writing this book and imagining the kind of wise mischief Marcus was getting up to as he tries to get his way. This audience shaped both Marcus’s perspective but also the kind of humor in the book. 

While many existing Roman narratives have been dominated by a “good” son who knows his duty, I thought it important to imagine that for every son aware of his duty, there was also one who was still growing into that space. For every soldier willing to die for his country, there must have been another who was haunted by the horrors of war. While extant Latin texts have certainly shaped our views of the ancient world, those are only the ones we have left and not necessarily the only perspectives available. 

AW: What are some of the features of Explore Latin: Avēs and Augury Is for the Birds? How will they enhance the reading experience for language learners (or the teaching experience for those using these works as a classroom text)?

EV: I think that the glossary is fairly innovative in the fact that it utilizes not only the traditional dictionary entry but also the different parsed forms, as students do not always recognize these forms as connected. I think this inclusion will make the book more accessible to students learning from different teaching styles [editor's note: look for an upcoming blog post that further describes these features].  

I’m also excited about the grammatica section [in Augury Is for the Birds], which provides a written example of a “grammar pitstop.” These short explanations will help students to understand the grammar on a need-to-know basis in terms of their reading. 

AW: Where will this storyline go in the future? What additional themes do you hope to explore?

EV: The next volume goes deeper into Marcus and his father’s story and their dueling views of the nature of war by looking at instances of augury within both a Homeric and ancient Roman history context. It explores further the possible tension between duty to family and duty to country. Although it may be focusing on the familiar topic of war and men, I hope to expand on existing narratives by adding layers of complexity to their characters and views.

Emma Vanderpool has been teaching Latin since 2017—two years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a year at Trickum Middle School in Gwinnett County, Georgia, and now back in her beloved New England at Springfield Honors Academy, Springfield, MA. Vanderpool earned her Bachelor of Arts in Latin, Classics, and History from Monmouth College in Illinois and her Master of Arts in Teaching for Classical Humanities from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Among her awards, Vanderpool is the recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award from UMASS Amherst (2019) and was honored as the Lincoln Laureate for Monmouth College (2017). She serves on the Executive Board for Ascanius: The Youth Classics Institute and the Classical Association of New England and is an organizer for Lupercal. She has self-published nine novellae and is pleased to be an author for Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers. 

In addition to writing her own novellas, Vanderpool has taught from them for several years. If you're curious to read her views on teaching and using novellas in the classroom more generally, check out her interview with editor Don Sprague in the December 2020 eLitterae newsletter.


  1. I would love to have my class hear the books they love spoken in Latin. I have elementary and junior high students who are really engaged with these books. Our favorite by far was Sirus Elephantus which elicited much class discussion. To have a place to listen to these books would be great addition to the educational series. Anything in the works for that?

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  3. Christina, that is an interesting idea! We don't have anything in the works at the moment, but we'll consider your input.