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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Book Review #2: A Street Through Time ***** (Five Stars)

Annette's note: Starting with this review, I'll be using a quick-reference rating guide.

Five Stars= I couldn't put this down, and neither could my kid tester, Alec (age 8). We have read (or will read) it again. It's inspiring, thought-provoking, and very entertaining. A truly exceptional book.

Four Stars= Excellent and enjoyable history for kids. Both Alec and I enjoyed this very much.

Three Stars= Commendable effort. Headed in the right direction, but needs a bit of work to make it more engaging.

Two Stars= Fair. It might work for a kid who is already engaged in this specific topic, but won't fire up too many kids who aren't. Typically pedestrian stuff.

One Star= Beware. This is the sort of kids' history I'm complaining about.

Anne Millard and Steve Noon (illustrator), A Street
Through Time: A 12,000-Year Journey Along The Same Street (New York: DK Children, 1998)

For many years, a well-meaning community service club here in Snipesville donated the proceeds of its annual benefit breakfast to buy dictionaries for every kid in town. I used to have to restrain myself from suggesting that such a gift was about as exciting to the average kid as a clod of dirt, because, well, that would have been a bit rude of me. But maybe I should have been brave and spoken up, and suggested that the good ladies of the club buy a truckload of A Street Through Time instead.

This is, quite simply, a book that no kid should be without.

Our copy (I say our, because Alec is resigned to my laying claim to it, too) is in a shocking state. The cover is long gone, and there are ominous inch-log rips near the spine on several pages. We have owned ours since Alec was five, but he can often still be found lying on the floor with this enormous volume opened in front of him, pressing his nose up to the illustrations to see all the details (and no, he doesn't need glasses.)

A Street Through Time tells the story of one fictional northern European street, from 10,000 B.C. (or B.C.E. if you prefer) to the present day. The "street" and the events that take place on it are generic enough that many readers can imagine it to be wherever they like, although it's pretty clearly somewhere in England. Each double-page spread of this outsize book covers a different period, and the pace of the book slows as we enter the modern era. In other words, the early pages jump from 10,000 B.C. to 2,000 B.C. to 600 B.C., while the last few pages divide the 19th century into three periods, before jumping (rather startlingly) to a late 20th/early 21st century present.

But this is not a reading book in any conventional sense.

Adults who believe that only text and facts are worthy for children's history are terribly mistaken, and A Street Through Time is a perfect illustration of why. This book teaches children (and adults who pay attention) what history is.

Each double-page is an enormous and beautifully detailed, vividly colored illustration of the street. You must hold the book in your hands to appreciate how gorgeous it is, because no written description or computer image can do the book justice. It's the sort of illustration that eschews artsy abstraction for the sort of vivid and realistic detail that kids (and let's be honest, most adults) prefer.

The main text is a brief (fewer than 50 words) description of the historical context (discussing how, for example, the street's residents have developed ironwork since we last met them.) All around the edges of each picture are text snippets that highlight some things to look for, such as the building of a stone castle where previously there had been a wooden fort, or the outdoor toilets in the middle of the settlement (these are often in use in the pictures, to kids' delight. Who knew that people in the past went to the bathroom?)

But the pictures themselves serve as a text for teaching kids about change over time (the very definition of history) Often, the street is captured at a less than tranquil moment in its history. We see cattle rustled, Vikings invade, and plague strike. Oddly, we don't see the impact of modern warfare, because the book skips much of the 20th century because, I presume, it would be hard to depict while maintaining the deliberate vagueness of place.

In the pictures, we see not only changes in dress, crafts, customs, religion, and how people relate to each other, but also the ways in which people alter the natural environment: What began as a wooded hill behind the settlement is gradually deforested, and then built over for example.

What's most thought-provoking (I hope) is that the book vividly illustrates that history and progress are not the same thing. After viewing the street as it was during Iron Age, complete with thatched huts, modest wooden canoes, and wooden palisades around the settlement, we turn the page (and five hundred years) to find the glory that was Romano-Britain. A huge stone temple, an amphitheater, paved roads and an embanked river give an impressive display of (to quote Monty Python) what the Romans did for us. Yet, turn the page once more, to AD 600 (five hundred years later), and all that is left are a couple of ruins, as the street, now populated by the descendants of invading Angles and Saxons, returns to wooden huts and an unbanked river. Magic.

The book shows the zigzag that is history, and it also shows continuity as well as change. The holy site of the Stone Age becomes the Roman Temple becomes the stone church, which over time acquires a spire, and then a rebuilt tower, before burning down in the civil war of the seventeenth century. It is then rebuilt, and repeatedly modernized into the present day.

The success of A Street Through Time is partly reflected in how often it is imitated. Since its publication, the format has spun off and inspired all sorts of similar titles. All are welcome, because it's an inexhaustible genre that still has much potential, and I will review some of them here. None, however, quite matches the cleverness of the original.

This book will stimulate a child's interest in history of all kinds, so even if European history is not your thing, please don't hold that against it. For kids, the most important thing is NOT absorbing "information" (i.e. committing facts to memory). It is to gain a sense of history, and an enthusiasm to learn more. Kids gain from A Street Through Time a sense of chronology and change. Most of all, they love it. This book is a terrific investment in imagination and critical thought.

For more book recommendations, visit my
Non-Boring History Recommendations for Kids.

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