While I have been a book devourer for all my life, I've known lots of people who were 'reluctant readers'. So, particularly concerning children's and young adult literature, I look for books that will tempt a child to pick up a book. That is one of the reasons I love graphic novels so much, people of varying reading levels can appreciate them. Over the years, I've found I can forgive a lot if a book can catch a 'reluctant reader's' attention.
I have now found my limit...and this book is it.
First, the positives. This is extremely well-written and certain to catch any reader's attention. The text is catchy, humorous, and gets to the point in simple and easy sentences. There was always a one-liner or a tongue in cheek moment, even as you are being presented with facts. While the book warns you that if you don't like gore and are squeamish the book isn't for you, I did not find it at all difficult. And trust me, I can't watch horror movies - full stop - and most medical information turns my stomach. While this has detailed, there were no disgusting pictures and the information is not dwelt on or glorified. The illustrations are stark, dark, and work so well with the text. Each chapter is short and concise with some interesting information imparted at the end. The famous people chosen are a great mix of ancient and more modern, political figures and writers/scientists, and men and women. Odds are, every reader as heard of at least some of these people. The biggest plus for me was the large section of Further Reading for each chapter. All the books were age appropriate that I recognized and websites were also offered that would entertain while teaching. That section alone could be a great help to an educator or parent.
So, this sounds like a great book! I should be handing this out to every boy (and many girls) I know as a great way to interest them in history, right?
Nope. I can't say that and I really wish I could. Once more unto the breach...and the difficult part of this review.
First, I have real issues with 'simplifying' historical facts. It can be done in a way that does not change or twist the truth, but all too often making it easy also turns it into all but a lie. I'd rather see outright lies that point you to the heart of the facts (see Dave Barry Slept Here) then half truths that cloud actual facts. I particularly have issues with this in children's books. When I was in later elementary school and middle school, I was attempting to read adult history books because I found the ones written for my age level not only childish but were basically lying to me. Thank goodness today we have people like Jim Murphy. This book does it in spades. I know almost nothing about Roman history but my husband likes to read around in it (not with any focus but for fun). So I shared with him some aspects of the Julius Caesar section that were bothering me and he agreed. They oversimplified his actions and made him sound one way when he really wasn't. This happened more then once and those were only the times I could catch.
Second, I find some of the facts suspects. One at least, according to a review I read, was a dating error but one that should have been caught in editing.1 The rest I can not point to anything concrete one way or the other because the author did not give any footnotes on where she got this information. To her credit, her sources are listed for each chapter after the text but there is no way of knowing which of them contained the information in question nor did I know any of the authors other then Paul Johnson listed for several chapters. One 'fact' concerning Edgar Allan Poe, what in fact caused his death, bothered me as I know I've read/heard at least twice that the rabies theory is not currently greatly believed; though this book asserts it is the one held over the alcohol death. While I can't find it again, at least one review I checked out mentioned this as well.
Third and final, was how biased and yet persuasively written this book is. Look, we all have biases, that's a given fact. And it is true that most non-fiction books are written with a bias towards one opinion over another. However, in most of those cases, this is understood by the reader and they can judge accordingly based on their own thoughts and knowledge. Younger readers, particularly ones we think of as 'reluctant', usually don't have this understanding and so can't judge when a writer is doing this. What in the end turned me off to this book is that the author had a very clear bias for or against certain figures and showed this in the way the text was written. It was a near perfect example of persuasive writing, seriously a teacher should use parts of this as examples in class.
An example of this can be easily shown by comparing the chapter on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Now let me be clear, I don't like Henry. I never have and I tend to not read books (fiction or non) on that time because I simply don't like learning about him. However, there were positive sides to his rule and himself. He was not a horrible monster (though I feel that he acted like it at times). The chapter dedicated to him though paints him in such a negative and disgusting light I was completely appalled. Not only did it nearly malign him but it seemed to glorify in his destruction.
Contrast that with the next chapter on his daughter, Elizabeth I. Again, I'll lay my cards out on the table; I admire her a great deal. It takes a strong person to lead a country well and she did that as a woman and in that time period - amazing. However, I don't agree with all her actions. I understand why they might have seemed like the right choice at the time but I have issues with them. In this book's chapter though, she is painted exceedingly well. After saying how horrible Henry's actions were to kill people and place their heads on pikes, they breeze over Elizabeth doing the same thing as if it means nothing. Um...no. Pardon me, your bias is showing. And Elizabeth's last hours are meticulously presented but never once does the author say that maybe Elizabeth could have done herself a favor by lying down on the bed. On some levels I get it, but if we're looking at both sides (which I can tell you this book more often then not does not) then she might have prolonged her life or made her final hours and those around her better by a different course of action.
The real issue is that the author does an excellent job of writing all this in such a way that most readers would never notice. As I said above, this is superb persuasive writing. If a teacher is using this is class and pointing out how the text shapes the reader's feelings, I would have less of an issue. But we all know that is not going to happen often.
I can't tell you how much I wanted to love this book. It's some of the best writing I've seen in awhile and is guaranteed to interest most readers in its proper age group. However, I can't recommend it as it plays all the games I hate the most in history books for children and young adults. If a parent wants to work through it with a child or a teacher uses it with a class, I can see some potential, but most readers are simply not going to understand what the author and the text are really teaching them.