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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.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Book Review #1: You Wouldn’t Want To… Miss This Great Series of History Books

[Annette's Note: Too few history books for kids are both entertaining and thought-provoking. The problem is that writers for children are seldom trained historians, while trained historians generally don't write for the public, and especially not for children.
As I discover enjoyable and stimulating history books for kids, both fiction and non-fiction, I will share my finds with you on this blog. Every book I recommend has also passed the AlecTest, namely, does my eight-year-old son, Alec, also love this book? To view our ongoing list of favorites, please visit Dr. Annette Laing's NON-BORING History Books, DVDs, and Websites for Kids. If, while browsing there or here on the Blog, you choose to purchase any books by clicking on the Amazon links, you will support my work to make history accessible for kids: Amazon gives a small commission, at no cost to you.]

You Wouldn't Want To…

Various authors. Illustrated by David Antram. Franklin Watts (An Imprint of Scholastic.)

Hooking kids' interest in the past is easiest when they are enticed to imagine themselves there. Who wouldn't want to pretend to live in a castle in medieval England, or rendezvous with the Pilgrims as they disembark from the Mayflower? But kids also prefer their history to have an "ick" factor: The sanitized stuff about cardboard heroes that makes it into school textbooks is much less fun than Henry VIII chopping off the heads of his wives, or the grim business of mummification in Ancient Egypt. The ever-growing You Wouldn't Want To series of books appeals to both these demands, by inviting kids to imagine themselves living in the past, while showing them that, well, they really wouldn't want to.

Created by illustrator and publisher David Salariya (who, I'm happy to say, is a native of Dundee, Scotland, my home town), the series (known in the UK as Danger Zone) is especially exciting for its diverse choice of subjects. So many superb history books for children have been produced in the UK during the past twenty years, but, frustratingly, most focus on British and, to a lesser extent, European history, and do so in ways that sometimes make them difficult for American kids to connect. Salariya, however, has wisely chosen historical settings that range, albeit unevenly, over the whole gamut of world history, from the predictable (You Wouldn't Want To Be An Egyptian Mummy!) to the—by Western standards—exotic (You Wouldn't Want to Be an Inca Mummy! takes kids to sixteenth-century Peru.)

Let me rush to add here that mummification is far from the only theme of the series. All the themes are ambitiously and successfully specific, avoiding the vagueness about time and place that weakens many kids' history books. Kids learn that the past isn't just one giant lump of "Back Then": Culture and society change constantly, and a few years or miles can make all the difference.

You Wouldn't Want to Be a Victorian Mill Worker, for example, takes readers to England in 1842, during the grueling early years of the Industrial Revolution, and asks them to imagine being an 11-year-old child taken from the workhouse to labor in a cotton mill in the northern city of Manchester. The book gleefully illustrates the many terrible things that could (and did) befall child workers in early factories (scalping, crushed fingers, and various respiratory ailments) before the introduction and enforcement of safety laws. It also introduces kids to Lancashire dialect (with translations), and in so doing, neatly makes the point that English comes in many varieties, any one of which is not necessarily intelligible to other English speakers. Most excitingly, the link between slavery in America and near-slavery in Manchester is made explicit: The book begins with a quick explanation of cotton production and the export trade to England.

This isn't, honestly, as heavy as it sounds. Salariya's stable of writers don't shy from doing their homework, and consulting with experts when necessary: You Wouldn't Want to be a Roman Soldier! , for example, was written with the help of Stephen Johnson, the author of several books on archeology. But the authors also bring experience in teaching and writing for children to the table, and they don't hesitate to use humor to keep their readers engaged.

This approach is especially refreshing when it comes to American history. The teaching of U.S. history in schools is handicapped by the ways in which we conceive of history curriculum either as a course in patriotism, a lesson in self-esteem, or both. The problem is that neither approach impresses kids, and that the good intentions tend to backfire when young people encounter real history in college and discover for themselves that the candy-coated and dull history they were fed (and yet rarely absorbed) is nonsense. You Wouldn't Want To Be An American Colonist! will do more to interest kids in the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown than a whole stack of tedious and preachy textbooks. The story is gross, funny, and (hallelujah!) true. Kids vicariously experience everything from the "Starving Time" of the winter of 1609-10, when colonists resorted to eating their shoes and even to cannibalism, to the tense and often violent relationship between the settlers and Algonquian Indians. Finally, of course, the colony survives by planting the profitable crop of tobacco. Trust me, kids raised in an increasingly smoke-free society love to marvel at this.

The American history titles in the series also include Live in a Wild West Town, Sail With Christopher Columbus, Be A Civil War Soldier, Be An American Pioneer, Be At The Boston Tea Party, Sail On The Mayflower, Work on the Railroad.

My main criticism of the series is that non-Western history and recent topics get short shrift. While Latin America (Aztec Sacrifice, Inca Mummy, Mayan Soothsayer) and Asia (Great Wall of China) are represented, there is still much to be done in both areas, and I've yet to find a title in the series that deals with sub-Saharan African history. Also, while the series includes volumes on the Titanic and Apollo 13, I would love to see more titles that deal with the twentieth century, although I'm well aware that political considerations don't encourage that. Finally, although I freely admit that I haven't read every volume, I have yet to come across a You Wouldn't Want To book that features a girl as the character with whom kids identify. Several of the volumes, however, cleverly avoid identifying the "you" of the title…and since it's boys who often need the most persuasion to read, I'll give the editors a pass…for now.

The editions available in the U.S have been slightly adapted to American needs: When prices are translated into modern terms, for example, dollars are used for comparison. Each slim volume in the series is cheerfully illustrated with the colorful artwork of David Antram. His amusing and bold color cartoons help to make the often-grim subject matter digestible, even to easily-scared parents.

If you want to check out the series before buying, Salariya Book Company's site generously makes four You Wouldn't Want To titles available (FREE) on the web: Egyptian Mummy, Polar Explorer, Roman Gladiator, and Sail On The Whaling Ship Essex. The online books aren't as graphically appealing as their dead-tree versions, but a fun feature that allows you to roll over characters to see speech bubbles compensates, as, of course, does the price… Go to: http://www.salariya.com/web_books/pages/web_books.html

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