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The Smashing Saxons - Terry Deary

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Author: Terry Deary / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 01 October 2007 / Genre: History / Subcategory: Non-Fiction / Category: History & The Past: General Interest / Publisher: Scholastic / Title: The Smashing Saxons / ISBN 13: 9781407104188 / ISBN 10: 1407104188 / Alternative title: Horrible Histories: The Smashing Saxons - Terry Deary / Alternative ISBN 10: 0439012716

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      06.11.2011 20:26
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      Makes history lots of fun

      The Smashing Saxons is another book from Terry Deary's Horrible Histories series, which seeks to make history more fun and fascinating to children by focussing on the gruesome and absurd bits.. The Smashing Saxons will teach you all about the "pillaging people who bashed the Brits but got nobbled by the Normans." For all its light hearted, jokey style, it is an informative read, which will teach children a great deal about this period of history. I would recommend this book for children aged about 9 and upwards.

      My daughters have collected several books in the Horrible Histories range and they do enjoy most of them. The Saxon period does not seem to be as widely taught in schools as, for instance, the Tudor era or the Victorian era. I think it was for this reason that my daughters didn't really take to this book as much as some of the others. I think the Horrible Histories really come into their own when a child is learning about a particular historical period at school, because the books allow them to consolidate their learning in an informal, relaxed way. I think Horrible Histories are not so good when the child knows very little about the period of history covered, as all the jokes and comic strip type illustrations can be distracting when you're trying to digest lots of new information and get your head round the basics.

      The book begins with a useful timeline and then proceeds to explain - in a couple of pages and using an easy to follow question and answer format - who the Saxons were. This simple explanation clarifies exactly where the Saxons fit into what is quite a complicated history of Britain. We realise pretty quickly that the Saxons came after the Romans but before the Vikings and the Normans. The book explains how the Saxons gradually took control of what we now call England. (I will be honest and admit that I wasn't particularly up to speed on Saxon history, so the book certainly filled in some gaps for me too. I actually feel that Horrible Histories are quite handy for adults who want to brush up on their existing knowledge of history but haven't got the time or inclination to read longer history books, so they can be enjoyed by the whole family.)

      Deary introduces us to some of the key 'personalities' of the era and there is a particularly interesting section where he asks, who was the real King Arthur? He offers some alternative versions of the Arthur story, which don't involve Round Tables and pulling a magical sword out of a stone. We learn about King Offa, who built a 150 mile ditch to keep the Welsh out. We meet Alfred the Great and find out whether he really did burn those cakes. We also learn why Ethelred was unready.

      Once we understand who the Saxons were and where they came from, Deary teaches us some thoroughly intriguing facts about everyday Saxon life, which provide the sort of gruesome, yucky detail the Horrible Histories are famous for. We learn about life in the monasteries where monks copied out books by hand, writing on sheets of animal skin called vellum, with a rather gory pictorial explanation of how it was made. Deary tells us that the skin of at least 129 calves was used to create the Lindisfarne Gospels and states dryly - "so it's not suitable for reading by vegetarians." Of course the monks also needed pens, which were made from birds' feathers, and ink, which was obtained from a substance found around wasp eggs. There is a rather amusing cartoon featuring 2 monks, one of whom is being stung mercilessly by a swarm of wasps whilst the other one, oblivious to his suffering, instructs him in the art of making ink!

      The book tells us about bizarre superstitions including a section on Saxon ghost busters, outlining the lengths they would go to in order to stop the dead coming back to haunt them. Children will no doubt be intrigued to learn that the Saxons built their houses out of pig poo and that they wore clothes made out of crushed and dried nettle stems that had been woven into cloth. "Imagine wearing nettle knickers," says Deary, in a typical moment of schoolboy silliness. Saxon food is discussed and there is even a recipe for 'Monks Mush', an uninspiring vegetable stew of the era. We are also told that frogs, snails, skylarks and seaweed featured regularly on the Saxon menu. We learn about Saxon medicine, with interesting cures for everything from madness and headaches to sick horses.

      The information is presented in an inspiring way in the form of quizzes, cartoons and spoof newspaper reports, letters, diary extracts or adverts for Saxon 'products' such as 'House Builders and DIY Quick Set Pig Poo' and 'Horrible Histories Hair Restorer' (made from burning bees and rubbing the ash into the scalp!) Children can act as archaeologists and look into a Saxon grave to interpret the findings. They can also take a quiz which will tell them if they've got what it takes to be a Judge in a Saxon criminal court, handing out ghastly punishments. There is also a quiz designed for a child to try out on their parents, which I thought was a good idea as it encouraged children to share what they have learned and stimulate discussion at home. My daughters' favourite part of the book is where it provides a selection of Saxon riddles, which the reader can try to solve. (Writing riddles was apparently a common pastime for the Saxons.)

      Generally speaking, I loved this book but I have one or two reservations. I don't particularly approve of the way Horrible Histories start from the premise that history is dull. Not so! I didn't have Horrible Histories when I was a kid but I still found history a fascinating subject. My daughters have also always loved history. The idea that traditional history books need to be revamped to hold a child's interest isn't something I necessarily agree with. History should still be interesting, even without all the references to poo and bloodshed! As I recall, most history books had plenty of 'nasty bits left in' anyway. I also think that if an author keeps telling children how boring a subject is at school , some kids will pick up on that and think they don't have to concentrate in lessons at school. So, whilst these books are a fun addition to any child's book collection, they need to be read along with books that are more serious in style, in my view.

      Whilst I am all for some humour to stop a history book becoming too dry, I felt this book was just a bit too silly at times. Too many attempts to crack jokes just gets tedious after a while. The constant use of alliteration - "bash the Brits", "naughty nuns", "mischievous monks", etc - started to irritate me after a few pages, as did Deary's corny jokes, puns and wordplay. For instance, he tells us about the death of King Offa - "tough luck, Offa, after you went to all that boffa." In another section he tells us that a woman who ran off with another man would lose not only all her property but also her nose and ears. He then adds - "what would the world be like if we had that law today? Who nose?" I know this book is aimed at 9-12 year olds, but I think even they would start to groan at the jokes after a while. My daughters certainly did.

      On a more positive note, I do like the way Deary encourages readers to reflect on things by making comparisons with their own experiences. For instance, he tells us about how Saxon poets would attend feasts and sing downright miserable songs and he makes the comment, "I suppose it's no worse than watching some miserable television programme whilst you're chewing your chips or slurping your soup." He often provides analogies that kids can relate to, such as classroom feuds, to help explain the feuding that went on in Saxon times. When Deary tells us that monks were forbidden to speak during meal times, he asks the reader to imagine eating school dinner in silence and encourages children to learn some of the hand signals used by the monks to communicate.

      Overall, I would recommend this book. For all its silliness, it is educational and I think most children would find it fun to read. At just 128 pages long and with illustrations on each page, it isn't too challenging. You can buy it new from Amazon for £4.13.

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    • Product Details

      The Smashing Saxons tells the terrible truth about the pillaging people who bashed the Brits but got nobbled by the Normans, including who got cow pats as Christmas presents or why wearing a pig on your head was lucky. Read on for foul facts on disgusting diseases and ghastly graves.