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Avoid Sailing on the Titanic - David Stewart

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Illustrator: David Antram / Paperback: 32 pages / Publisher: Book House / Published: 1 Aug 2002

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      23.04.2013 14:53
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      An engaging history book for children

      The Danger Zone series of books aims to make history engaging and meaningful to primary school children. I think these books are suitable for children of around age 7 and upwards.

      What is unusual about these books is that they make the reader imagine that he/she is a character from the period of history they are learning about. So in this particular book the reader gets to be J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line, a man who dreamed of building the greatest liners in the world, but will be remembered in history for quietly slipping into a lifeboat to save his own skin before the Titanic foundered.

      The book encourages readers to develop empathy for the people involved in the tragedy. Ismay's reputation was tarnished forever as a result of his actions, but did he deserve to be branded as a coward? Readers are invited to consider what they would have done in his situation, if the lifeboats were pulling away half-empty. In a terrifying situation, would it be natural to panic and to fight for your survival? Does one moment of weakness make you a 'bad' person? There are lots of interesting moral questions that arise. I like the way that the book presents the facts in a balanced way but does not judge. It leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions and sets the imagination working.

      David Stewart's account of Titanic's ill-fated voyage is surprisingly informative for a slender book containing only 32 pages. There is a good balance between text and illustrations. Such is the detail in the illustrations that children who are not the most competent readers or don't have the best attention spans will be able to learn a lot just from looking at the pictures. For example, they will get a sense of the sheer size of the ship and be able to compare the first class, second class and steerage sections of the ship. There is also a series of pictures showing exactly how the ship sunk, the six compartments being split open and the weight of the water pulling the bow of the ship downwards.

      In one particularly evocative picture we see a lifeboat being lowered and the confusion and fear of the passengers is written all over their faces. You can also make out the band members continuing to play on the deck. Illustrator, David Antram, has a unique drawing style and his pictures resemble caricatures. Some of the characters depicted look rather lugubrious and ugly (possibly even a bit scary for some children) but what is good about them is that their facial expressions convey so much.

      Together with the speech bubbles and thought bubbles that are often used, these pictures add some much needed dry humour to the book. For instance, in a picture of the boiler room, men are breaking up coal. One of them grumbles - "Bloomin' backbreaking work for 5 pounds and 10 shillings a month" and his face shows he isn't exactly happy in his work! In another picture a couple of men are seen struggling to lift a grand piano into the ship's hold. (I was interested to read that Titanic's hold was filled with all sorts of strange things from cars to walnuts and ostrich feathers!)

      Unlike the Horrible Histories series where you are bombarded with jokes (some of them bordering on bad taste!) the humour is more subtle here and never becomes irreverent. Nor does it distract the reader from what they are reading about. However, it does add a bit of light relief to what is a very sombre subject, making it a bit more palatable for young readers.

      The book explores many aspects of the topic. You can find out how the ship was built, who the crew were, who the passengers were and what happened after the iceberg was struck. As well as history, it also brings in aspects of geography as it discusses the route to New York and science as it explains such things as steam power and the ship's inability to stay afloat once the water started gushing into its hull, flowing above the bulkheads and pulling it down.

      There is even a bit of maths in here as well, as readers learn about the ship's specifications, looking at such things as weight, length, speed etc. It is also fascinating to compare the wages of different crew members. For example, the captain's £1,250 a year salary was 300 times as much as the stewardesses were paid. The differences in prices paid for first class, second class and third class accommodation makes interesting reading also. So there is lots of potential for cross-curricular learning here.

      Throughout the book we are provided with a number of 'Handy Hints', tongue-in-cheek travel tips. For instance, if you want to reserve a stateroom with a 15 metre long private promenade deck, you should book early to avoid disappointment. There are only two on the ship and they cost £880 each.

      The inclusion of a glossary at the end of the book is a good idea because it means children can look up any words they don't understand, which encourages independent learning. It's a good book to teach you about ships in general, not just the Titanic, as it familiarises you with terms like 'bow', 'stern', 'keel' and 'hull' etc.

      It is left to the reader to evaluate the tragedy in terms of who was to blame and what could have been done differently. The key information is presented and the reader is able to appreciate that there were many contributing factors to the disaster, some avoidable, some unavoidable. Not only do readers learn about the disaster, but they also gain a clear impression of life in 1912, when inequality of class and gender was the norm. They gain a sense of a very different Britain. It was quite chilling to learn that First Class dead were embalmed and taken home for burial but those from Third Class were sewn up in heavy linen and buried at sea. Even in death that inequality remained.

      Although it is a sad and shocking story, the book does end on a more positive note as it speaks of the changes in the law that came about after the disaster, improving safety. I think it is important for children to realise that some good does sometimes come out of horrible catastrophes like this, that lessons are learned.

      I would recommend this as a good children's 'starter' book on the Titanic. It will leave them in no doubt about the scale of the tragedy and invites them to look at the human stories behind the statistics. By writing it in the second person - "you are the managing director of the White Star Line", "you help people into the lifeboats", etc. the author draws the reader in from the start. He does a good job of conveying the drama and terror of that fateful night but it is a sensitively written account suitable for a younger audience. This book is available new from sellers at Amazon from £1.44.

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