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To many children geography can be a dry, boring subject but this book promises "Geography with the gritty bits left in." Anita Ganeri investigates the spectacular, scary and explosive world of volcanoes. It's a subject that seems to fascinate many children. My own daughter became interested in volcanoes after a holiday in Sicily when we visited Etna and Stromboli.
It's a subject which has the potential to be somewhat mind-boggling, incorporating quite advanced scientific concepts, historical background and even some reference to Roman mythology, but the light, conversational tone peppered with humour that has become a characteristic of books in the 'Horrible' series makes the information easy for young readers to assimilate.
What really sets this book apart from other geography books (and even other books in the 'Horrible' series) is that the author uses a lot of powerful imagery and evocative description to conjure up a sense of drama, which makes it exciting for the reader. Anita Ganeri's obvious enthusiasm for the subject is quite infectious and she really conveys her sense of awe and that combination of attraction and repulsion that volcanoes manage to inspire. For example, I love the way that flowing lava from an erupting volcano is described - "Once lava gets going, nothing can stop it. It grinds along like a gigantic bulldozer, burying roads, cars, even whole villages." It creates a very powerful picture in your mind.
The book starts by taking us back to 18th May 1980, the day when Mount St Helens erupted for the first time in 123 years and the story is told in such a way that it really builds the suspense, conveys the atmosphere and makes us reflect on the shocking impact - "Onlookers feel they've had a glimpse of Hell." There couldn't be a more dramatic way to start a geography book and it certainly captured my daughter's imagination immediately. I appreciate that this could be quite scary for some children but of course volcanoes ARE scary and although at times the book gives us rather disturbing details, it never descends into gratuitous gore.
This book strikes the right balance between showing us what violent, unpredictable things volcanoes can be but also putting the risks into perspective. So although we are told that scientists believe that a big volcanic explosion is overdue and that a really huge eruption could blot out the sun for years on end, we are reassured that, "'Soon' to a scientist doesn't mean today, tomorrow or even next week, they're more likely talking 25,000 years away."
The information in this book is presented in a variety of different ways. You can read diary entries and letters from witnesses of volcanic eruptions. There are also spoof newspaper articles and -- our favourite bit of all - a tourist guide for volcano visitors, with travel reports from Hawaii, Yellowstone Park, Iceland and other volcano 'hot spots' along with Auntie Vi's Top 10 Travellers' Tips to make sure you are fully prepared for all eventualities.
The contrast between first person accounts, third person accounts, formal, informal, humorous and serious keeps the subject matter interesting. Children are encouraged to use their imaginations and indulge in a bit of role playing which is a great way to learn, in my opinion.
I am impressed that diagrams, where presented, are comprehensible. For instance, a diagram of the different layers that make up the earth is explained using the sort of language and comparisons that children can relate to. The first layer, the crust, is referred to as "just like a crust on a loaf of bread" and the magma (liquid rocks) in the next layer down is described as being "thick and gooey like sticky treacle." It tackles a rather complex subject well. Charts are also easy to follow. For instance, in one chart children can discover the top 10 most violent volcanic eruptions over the last 7,000 years. It gives children a chance to compare statistical data and provides a clear example of how to display data chronologically for ease of reference.
As you would expect in a Horrible Geography book, there is plenty of humour to keep the mood light, but the book is not overly silly and the jokes are not a distraction, as can sometimes be the case. Much of the humour comes from the comic strip illustrations. One of the many fascinating facts I learned in this book was that when Mount Tungurahua in Ecuador erupted in 1886, a rain of fish fell on the plains. The fish were believed to have come from a lake within the crater. There is an amusing picture of some rather frantic people with their umbrellas up and raincoats on as the fish fall from the sky. "Apparently, they were none the worse for their strange ordeal, not even slightly battered or lightly fried," says the author, in a typical moment of corny Horrible Geography humour that is sure to go down well with junior school kids.
There are quizzes to test your teacher. Of course these can also be tried out on friends and family members and are a great way to get a child talking about what they've learned. You can discover whether you've got what it takes to become a volcanologist and you can conduct a simple experiment using 2 corks and a jar of honey to represent magma and rocks and demonstrate how volcanoes erupt.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the section about what the architects unearthed at Pompeii centuries after Vesuvius buried it in ash and rock, which range from a 2,000 year old loaf of bread still in an oven to a dog preserved in ash. It's a bit grisly but intriguing to realise how much historians were able to learn about Roman life from what they discovered at Pompeii.
There really is so much to learn here. If you thought all volcanoes were pretty much the same, be prepared to be surprised as you discover that some spurt fire but others spew out steam, gas and ash. Some fizzle away quietly; others go off with a bang. They come in different shapes and sizes, and some eruptions are more violent than others. If all that wasn't confusing enough, some volcanoes start life as one type and finish up as another and in addition to all the volcanoes around the world, there are also many to be found in outer space.
It's not the easiest subject to get your head around and the author should be commended for tackling it in such a child-friendly way. It is reassuring to a young reader to know that even experts find volcanoes baffling and that the mysteries that still surround them just make the subject even more fascinating.
Violent Volcanoes can be obtained new from sellers at Amazon for a mere £0.01. I would heartily recommend it if you have a child who is curious about volcanoes.