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The Second World War is a tricky subject for a Horrible History book. Whilst it is easy to fill a book about the Tudors with chopping block gags or to use mocking humour to distance ourselves even further from Ancient History, World War 2 seems too recent and too horrible to approach lightly or irreverently. Many children, even if they have no living relatives who remember the war, will not have to go too far back in their family tree to find someone who either served in it or experienced the war. As a result, this is one of the more sombre Horrible Histories I have come across. The humour is drier and the material is dealt with sensitively and in a balanced way, resisting the temptation to paint one side as exclusively good and the other as evil.
In keeping with other Horrible Histories, this book is less concerned with dates and statistics and more with capturing the mood of the period in question. A 12-page timeline at the start of the book familiarises readers with the chronology of events from the end of World War 1 in 1918 to the dropping of the atom bomb in 1945, which ended World War 2. However, in the rest of the book Terry Deary focusses less on individual battles and key events, but on what it was like to have lived during the war years, how people felt and behaved, how they changed as a result of their experiences. He invites the reader to reflect on how they might have acted if faced with the kind of situations and dilemmas many people in war time were forced to confront. My daughter appreciated this book. She had learned a lot about the factual events of the Second World War at school but never tired of the 'human' information behind the bare facts. She enjoyed the 'what would you have done?' sections of this book because they encouraged her to look at things as they would have been perceived at the time, rather than from a modern perspective, making her realise that the principles and beliefs she can freely express now are exactly what so many people were fighting that war to preserve.
In one of the most moving sections of the book, there is a graphic description of a bombing raid on a city during the war. It is described as being a raid on London, taking place on a carnival day, Shrove Tuesday on 13th February 1945 and resulting in the deaths of possibly up to 135,000 people. Readers are told there is a deliberate mistake in the account given and are asked to try to spot it. Of course, the mistake is that it was not London but Dresden, bombed by the RAF at night and the U.S. Air Force by day. It's an excellent way to illustrate the point that war is horrific, whichever side you happen to be on. Does the description of children's bodies stacked in huge mounds, still dressed in their carnival clothes and circus horses huddled in fear, their glittering costumes on fire seem more or less shocking in the knowledge that this atrocity was committed by the Allies rather than the Nazis? Or does it make no difference at all?
The movies, of course, have fed us with glamorous, romanticised images of war, which this book is keen to dispel. If you want to know how disgusting and unglamorous fighting wars really is, there is an interesting and characteristically gory quiz to enlighten you. For example, you can learn why American paratroopers were safer than British ones, what gruesome thing the British used as shields when fighting the Japanese in Kohima in India and why a Nazi torturer in Paris worked dressed in just his underpants.
In one of the most interesting and fun parts of the book, children have the opportunity to decipher a code that the British Secret Service used to send messages from prisoner of war camps and they can even learn how to write their own secret messages in invisible ink. For this experiment lemon juice is used but children are reminded that people in concentration camps would not have had access to lemons and were more likely to have used sweat, saliva or pee. I was also intrigued to learn how secret supplies were smuggled in to prisoners of war, such as radio valves concealed in chess pieces and a pack of cards that was really a map in 52 pieces.
Those children who, like my daughter, are already familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank will no doubt be interested to read translated extracts from the diary of a Dutch boy called Robert de Hoey who lived in Java when the Japanese invaded in 1942. He and his parents were sent to prison camps. The diary entries make powerful reading. In addition to diary extracts, the book also presents information in the form of newspaper articles, which makes it accessible to the reader and dramatic in style.
The mainly dark, depressing subject matter of this book is balanced by more uplifting stories. My daughter enjoyed the section of the book devoted to animal stories from the war. She learned about Faye, a white cat from St Augustine's church in London, who not only survived a direct hit on the church but managed to get all her kittens to safety, and about a German duck called Freda that had an uncanny ability to warn the townsfolk of air raids. There are lots of stories of individual courage. We learn about the heroes and heroines of the Resistance, for example, and about a Polish policeman who had been ordered to round up the Jews so that they could be sent to their deaths. When he discovered twenty terrified women and children hiding in the loft of a house, what do you think he did? Readers are asked to consider what they would have done in that situation. It's a salient reminder that war brings out both the best and worst in people.
There is an interesting section on propaganda with a quiz to see if you can spot which war time rumours were actually true. Terry Deary puts it very succinctly when he says - "The first victim in war is the truth. It is killed stone dead." He shows how lies can be used to discredit the enemy and justify war. Some of the daftest stories that did the rounds include the belief that a dog in Hawaii was barking messages to a Japanese submarine in Morse code and that Scottish soldiers would be going home after the war in ships with tartan funnels! We were also amused by some of the rumours that circulated after the war as to Hitler's whereabouts, with many believing that he had not killed himself in a bunker at all but was perhaps working in a casino in France, or was still at sea after escaping on a U-boat or perhaps living underground in Sweden with sufficient tinned food to last him for years.
This book conveys very well just how different this war was to previous wars, showing how civilians were affected, not just soldiers. To illustrate that you weren't safe anywhere, there is a cartoon in which one man says to another, "We decided to put up a memorial just where it happened," and there is a sign saying 'RIP Jane' - next to the toilet! (It wouldn't be a Horrible History without a few toilet references, would it?)
As usual, fascinating facts abound. Children who like Coca Cola will be interested to learn that it owes much of its success to World War 2. Army water tasted disgusting, as did the coffee and fruit juice, so Coke was a big hit. During the war U.S. soldiers drank ten billion bottles of it. You can also read the U.S. Army's survival guide on what to eat if food is scarce. "Maggots make good food," it tells us. However, it also warns us: "Do not eat caterpillars." If you find this strange, just wait until you read what they ate on the Bataan Hunger March.
This is a very interesting book. Its familiar, conversational tone makes it an engaging read and, although it is not without its amusing references, the overall tone is respectful, raising serious and important questions. It doesn't just bombard children with facts, but encourages them to look at the human stories, the emotional cost of war, recognising that it cannot be looked at purely in terms of good = allies and bad = Germans, or even in terms of winners and losers. I like the way the book looks at the experience of war from people in different countries, rather than focussing on the British experience of war. I would certainly recommend this book. New copies are available from Amazon from £4.50.
The horrible histories books are a linked in with the children's tv series of the same name. Both my children watch horrible histories, and I must admit that I'm quite happy to watch an episode or three myself. I think that the mixture of education and entertainment is spot on for kids, and there's enough jokes in there for mum and dad too - we all know how mind bashing watching children's tv programmes can sometimes be.
I saw this particular book in a fantastic second hand local book shop for £1 - the RRP is £5.99 but it's currently available brand new on Amazon for £4.15.
Considering how light hearted the television programme is, I was surprised by the gravity of the introduction. Phrases like 'suffering school kids shot' and 'blameless babies bombed' were difficult to water down for my 7 year old daughter, so I didn't and just hoped instead that she wouldn't take those words to heart.
After she'd stopped crying, we moved on to the next section - 'Terrible Timeline'. All the major events of the war are outlined in chronological order, with a slight dose of tongue in cheek horrible histories style humour. The book then looks at 6 differing areas of the war; these are called: home horrors, frightful fighting, awesome animals, lousy liars, chilling for children and the holocaust. No holds are barred in the holocaust section - you may want to be with your child when it comes to this section.
The epilogue delivers a crucial message about the importance of remembering the worst bits of our history to make sure that such indiscriminate mass slaughter doesn't happen again. Throughout the pages are little cartoon strips that expand on a point mentioned in the text. For example, in the awesome animals chapter it mentions that (staggeringly) Hitler banned hunting with dogs as it was deemed to be cruel, but balances this with accounts of his cruelty towards people - this is then backed up with a little cartoon to illustrate the madness of this.
Considering how evil some of the acts perpetrated in this war were, I think it's pitched right for primary school age kids - it doesn't hold back on the more unpalatable truths but delivers it all with just enough sugar to prevent trauma induced vomiting.
My eldest daughter is now fascinated with all things WW2, and I've seen her dip into the book on many occasions. I've yet to get her to watch the Great Escape with me, but I'm working on it! Overall, it's wonderfully educational and at 128 pages long is crammed with well presented information. Five stars from me.
One of my favourite sets of books are the Horrible Histories. This is because they aren’t just normal boring history books but ones that get you interested in what your reading. The books include gruesome facts, tales and cartoons that make them fun to read. I have learnt a lot from reading them as nothing in them is made up. I am currently reading Dark Knights and Dingy castles out of the series. I have found it really interesting. Even though they are aimed at young people I would recommend the books to anyone.
"Why is it that the ones who most need to remember are the ones most likely to forget?" This is the poignant question that concludes this first-rate book. You won't find much in its pages about military strategy or the glory of war. Instead you'll learn how the most terrible war in history affected the lives of ordinary people. It brought out the best in some and they became heroes, and it brought out the worst in others and became truly barbaric monsters. Innocent people suffered terrible atrocities while government propaganda convinced both sides that God was blessing their war efforts. I've read a number of books in the 'Horrible Histories' series (and, more to the point, my kids have read them as well) and I really cannot recommend them highly enough. 'The Woeful Second World War' in particular stands out in its ingenuity. The book treats the weighty subject matter in a way that entertains and educates younger readers, mixing together harrowing accounts of adversity, bravery and outright stupidity with plenty of humour and delightfully gruesome facts. Despite this, it is in no way disrespectful and leaves the reader moved, saddened, wizened and amused all at the same time. Q. Who won the war? A. Coca Cola. It supplied soldiers with ten billion bottles at a nickel each. Q. What was the price of a British paratrooper's safety? A. Less than £20. That's how much it would have cost to equip him with an emergency parachute in case the main one failed to open. Q. What could you expect if tortured by German soldiers? A. Your fingernails and toenails pulled out at the roots and your thumbs crushed in the doors of your cell. A thin book placed on your head and then the book beaten with a hammer (the book prevented death whilst still allowing pain). Repeatedly dunked in cold water and pulled out just as you start to drown. News paper wrapped around your genitals then set on fire.
Red-hot poker - enough said. Whether you enjoyed history at school or not, you'll enjoy this series - and this book in particular - and learn a lot from it at the same time.
Book Series: Horrible Histories