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I bought this book because my sons are both into Horrible Histories. My son really enjoyed the ordinary Horrible Histories, but these Horrible Histories Handbooks are even better. They are in full colour, which really makes quite a difference, and very heavily illustrated. My son really does prefer illustrated books, but he is well past the picture book stage, so we usually must make to with simple black and white drawings in chapter books, or graphic novels. This has as many illustrations as a picture book, although usually smaller, and still has a text aimed at older more confident readers. My son finds the shorter segments of text much easier to read and the illustrations make this so much more enjoyable for him. I believe boys in particular do often need some illustration to fully immerse themselves in a book. I think girls, in general, are better at filling in the details from imagination. Most boys do enjoy picture books, but many lose interest in books once they outgrow the illustrated texts aimed at younger children, and good illustrated books for children ages 8 + are very hard to find.
I bought this more for literacy than for history. My son requested this book, so I bought is simply because he really enjoys reading these, and I feel that reading for pleasure is the most important single factor in developing literacy. But even though this book was not purchased to teach history, it does a very good job at it and one simple line has made this one of my very favourite history books for children ever. Terry Deary wrote "What most books forget is that soldiers on BOTH sides were lions".
Deary gives an idea of what the war was like for both sides - and this is exactly the way I want to teach history to my children. I do teach my children pride in their country and patriotism, and I have other books which encourage a sense of pride in the accomplishments of this nation and the bravery of our armed forces. But, I do not want to use history to teach hate. I believe history should teach our children the acts of courage and bravery that our nation has every right to take pride in, but also the mistakes of the past, and the consequences of hate. My own grandfather always taught to me to look at things from both sides, and to find the good on both sides. He wasn't a pacifist but a highly decorated war hero, but this is the legacy he left to me to pass on to my sons, to always try to understand both sides of a conflict.
This book is divided into two sections. Part I gives us the British perspective of the war, Part II gives us the German perspective. Deary lays into the politicians or "donkeys" on both sides and gives us a picture of what life in the trenches was like for both as well. We learn about the weapons, the food, and the children's favourite - the toilets. Propaganda is mentioned briefly. This is a subject of particular interest to me and I would have loved a bit more detail, but this is after all a children's book so it basically consists of lies told to encourage the soldier to hate his enemy. Again, this is something I was always taught was wrong and that this accounts for such of the most shocking acts of war. Once we dehumanise someone, we can free ourselves of the restraints of humanity. I'm glad that this book makes both sides out as basically good men each fighting for their own country.
Of course Deary throws his usual jokes in as well. It wouldn't be Horrible Histories with out them. He focuses on the facts most likely to bring a giggle to children, like Scottish Highlanders wearing ladies tights and getting their bums burned with poison gas. Naturally my children came to the conclusion if their bums were getting burned so was something else in the same general vicinity. There is a fair amount of toilet humor, and enough information on lice to make me itch just thinking about it, but overall, we didn't find this book quite as funny as many of the others. Perhaps that is because the subject is really pretty horrifying story after all, with poison gasses, people starving, men being shot by their own side and more. I imagine some people might find cracking jokes at such horrible suffering insensitive, but I do feel that without the lighter moments this book would simply become depressing and children would not be as inclined to read it.
My sons do have an interest in military history and weapons, so they especially liked the weapons pages. Naturally they enjoyed all the disgusting bits as well. They liked the ghost stories as well. They didn't like the thought of men being shot for being afraid as well, or the fact that good people died on both sides. War is so much easier to handle when you can think of the enemy as deserving it. They were also disappointed by the lack of airplanes, but in this case I am quite grateful, as the Horrible Histories Frightful First World War magazine is horribly inaccurate where it comes to Manfred Von Richthofen, portraying him as a bit of psychopath, so I am happy enough that this was left out.
I have read a fair amount about this period, but even so, as an adult I did learn more about the war. Perhaps it is is because everything is in such small easy to understand snippets that it has sunk in better, but I do feel that most adults could take something from this book as well. It is of course intended for children, and as a child's history book, I find this outstanding. My children learned a lot about this period, without feeling like they were doing school work. This encouraged my sons to really think, and feel empathy for both sides. Sadly it also gave my oldest a true glimpse at the horror of war when he realised that soldiers on both sides were good. It is a bit difficult for a child to understand good men killing good men. this book left us with genuine empathy and sadness for the German people - and for the rest of the world with what was to come. It gives the reader a real understanding of events which would prove critical in the near future as the world inches toward and even more devasting conflict.
I have seen history used so much to encourage division and hatred. As a parent and a home educator, I have one quote, which I have used in previous reviews as well that I always hold in my mind when selecting material or teaching history to my children.The quote is from the Coroner of Sligo after the death of Lord Mountbatten :
" I believe it is necessary to stress again the great responsibility that parents and teachers of any nation have in the way they interpret history and pass it on to the youth of their country. I believe that if history could be taught in such a fashion that it would help to create harmony among people rather than division and hatred, it would serve this nation and all other nations better".
I believe this book serves the message behind this quote. It teaches history in such a way that it encourages harmony rather than division. Finding books that really teach history in this manner is not an easy task, and I am very happy to have found one which offers so much compassion for both sides. I believe if all children learned history in this way, we might in time learn for our mistakes and not be quite as quick to resort to violence in the future. The book ends with a cartoon expressing the author and illustrator's desire for peace.