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In this Horrible Histories special, Terry Deary focusses on France. From the Dark Ages to the 19th Century, France clearly has a colourful and rebellious history. "And when they weren't rebelling they were eating weird food, being killed or cured by dreadful doctors, fighting against the English or fighting each other in deadly duels," says Terry Deary. In other words, French history promises not to be dull and is just right for the Horrible Histories treatment.
Like all books in the Horrible Histories series, this one is written in a good-humoured, irreverent style. What Horrible History books do so well is make the information memorable to the reader. Information that is shocking, amusing, and weird or makes you feel a tad uncomfortable is not going to be forgotten in a hurry. As usual, this book contains lots of fascinating snippets of information, the sort of things that a child is likely to want to tell their friends, family and even their teacher about. The book therefore encourages children to talk about what they are learning, share ideas and participate in lively discussions.
Here you can learn about a host of very strange kings and queens. For example, you can find out which king went mad and began to think he was made of glass and which king died as a result of being too polite to his wife. I was amused to learn that at the Palace of Versailles there were 5,000 servants and over 1,000 fountains but only two toilets. Apparently rich visitors were required to bring their own potties! I was also intrigued to read that when the guillotine was first used (on a highwayman called Petellier in 1792) the crowds went away grumbling because they thought the entertainment was over too quickly.
The true/false quizzes throughout this book encourage children to think for themselves, rather than just spoon feeding them with facts. The book also provides opportunities to use the imagination and to put yourself in the shoes of people from the period of history you are studying. For example, this book includes a quiz to see how horrible you are and whether you can be as horrible as some of the characters from French history. How far would you go to get a seat next to King Charles VI at his coronation feast, for instance? Or, if you were a French king, how would you sort out the 85 year old Pope who dared to criticise your taxation of priests?
The information is presented in lots of different ways to hold the reader's attention, such as newspaper reports, diary entries, poems, letters, quizzes and comic strips. For example, you can read how a newspaper of the time might have reported the disastrous escape plan of King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette. You can learn how to play 'marelle', a gambling version of hopscotch, which was popular with French highwaymen and learn the secret language of a criminal gang from the 1400s. (Find out whether ending up on the 'hill of joy' is worse than being 'on the straw' or losing your 'handles.') You can also discover what weird things 18th century Parisian women wore on their heads in the name of fashion. In addition, you can read a real whodunit. Could Napoleon Bonaparte have been murdered by his own countrymen? Come to your own opinion after reading the evidence.
I like the way Terry Deary writes in a language that children can relate to and uses meaningful comparisons. For example, he describes how in the 18th century the starving French peasants had to pay some outrageous taxes, including having to give their corn to feed the local Lord's pigeons! To make readers understand the peasants' sense of indignation, Deary suggests this is "a bit like every pupil in a class having to give teacher a litre of petrol so he can drive his Rolls Royce to school while they walk." (Deary's jokes at the expense of teachers can be a bit tiresome, but in this book he is fairly restrained compared to others I have read.)
No Horrible Histories book would be complete without a lot of lame jokes and corny puns, which often border on bad taste. We learn about the poet, Francois Villon, whose punishment for writing an insulting poem was to be tied to a cart and spanked with a paddle at every crossroads in the district. His ordeal is illustrated in a series of pictures, with one onlooker remarking - "It's poetry in motion."
Amongst all the silliness and jokes are some serious questions to ponder. Although Terry Deary refers to the French Revolution rather flippantly as, "when lots of posh people got their heads chopped off," the gruesome detail is not there just for morbid entertainment purposes. The book shows us that these were brutal times and asks us to consider what makes people prepared to embark on that kind of brutality. As Terry Deary puts it, "How angry do you have to be to do that?" Throughout the book we see striking examples of the obscene divide between rich and poor. We learn how starving poor would grind up broken tiles and bricks to bulk out the flour to make bread. Meanwhile, the monarchs stuffed themselves at lavish banquets. It is the human stories behind history -- references to mothers leaving their babies out in the wind and rain to die because they were too poor to feed them - that make the biggest impact.
Would I recommend it?
Yes. It's an informative book that gives a good overview of the history of France up to the 19th century. I think adults can also learn a lot from books like this (if they can put up with the sense of humour that is obviously aimed more at 11 year olds.) I read this book before we went to France in the summer as I realised I was a bit ignorant of French history and I do like to learn something about a country's history before I spend any time there. If you haven't got a lot of time to read more in-depth books, you could do worse than pick up a Horrible History and take a 'crash course' in the subject. It is certainly a good way to fill in gaps in your knowledge and as a result I was able to take more notice of buildings and places we visited in France, because I knew something about their historical context.
Although I find the constant alliteration of the writing style a bit irritating, I can see the advantage of this, not just to keep the tone light and fun but it is another way to emphasise key themes. Children may be more likely to take note if they are reading about the 'Deadly Dark Ages' than just the 'Dark Ages', for example, or 'Rotten Richelieu' as opposed to 'Cardinal Richelieu', the ruthless top minister to King Louis XIII. It injects a bit more drama into it.
I found the book quite well-balanced. Although the faults of Marie Antoinette are made apparent, you do almost feel sorry for her when you read about her treatment at the hands of her captors. Deary doesn't just present all monarchs as the bad guys and all peasants as heroes. Rebellion is certainly not presented as something glamorous, or something that always brings positive results or lasting solutions.
I feel that books like this are particularly good for kids with shorter attention spans, but eventually children do need to learn to get to grips with longer, more serious texts. It is not a substitute for more formal history books.
As Horrible Histories go, this is certainly one of the most gruesome. The chapter on the plight of animals throughout French history is not particularly pleasant to read. It's strange but true that many people are fine reading about human misery, but when it comes to animal suffering, no amount of cartoons and jokes can make it readable. This is something to bear in mind if you have a child who is particularly fond of animals.
It is not for the squeamish, but those who love "History with the nasty bits left in" will not be disappointed.