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I love Horrible Histories. They make history fun. Not that history isn't fun, I love history in general too, but I despised it in school. A lot of work must have gone into turning a subject that is by nature quite interesting as a collection of stories about our past into a dull and mundane subject - but Terry Deary had turned history back into stories. They may be gruesome revolting and disgusting, but they are also entertaining and memorable. It doesn't do much good for a child to read page after page of dry history if they forget it two minutes after passing the exam, as I always did. Horrible Histories make history relevant to children.
Horrible Histories Handbooks take a premise that was already very good - and make it one better. These books are printed on a very thick smooth paper. The pages themselves are coloured and the illustrations are all in full colour. These are shorter than the ordinary Horrible Histories books. An older Horrible Histories book would normally be 144 pages. The newer 20th anniversary editions are 240 to accommodate larger text and more illustrations. These have only 96 pages and a very good amount of illustrations. They also have considerably less quizzes, but as we felt the other books had a bit too many quizzes, this is a welcome change for us. My son and I both felt this had just the right amount of quizzes.
My oldest (age 8) especially likes these books as he really does prefer the pictures in colour. He also likes that the books are quick and easy to read - he took two days to read this, but he could easily have read it one if he hadn't wanted to do other things. My children are also very aware of texture and prefer the smoother paper as odd as that may sound. I can understand completely as I am overly aware of textures as well. He does enjoy all of the Horrid History books, but these are his favourites and he was delighted to get another handbook in the post today - and has chosen one more.
This particular book - as the name suggests - is all about witches. Not real witches of course, Terry Deary isn't the type to believe in witchcraft - but the hunting and killing of innocent people suspected of being witches. Horrible Histories are known for being a bit gruesome. This is slightly more Horrible than most. There are a number of accounts of very gruesome tortures, people being burned alive. I think the worst was forcing the youngest son of a family accused of witch craft to watch his parents and brothers burned alive, taken back to cell for an unknown number of days, and then brought out to face the same fate. This book won't give your child nightmares about witches on broomsticks, but it may give them bad dreams about mankind's inhumanity to other humans. As with all of Deary's books - I would recommend parents read this book first, especially with very young or sensitive children. I usually read these books to my youngest as well - (age 4) but I have only read him shorter funny bits from this book.
But - don't take the above as a criticism of the book. it is not. It is simply a warning that this book will not suit every child. But where Deary's books really do stand out is in reaching boys. The fact that boys as group do not read as well as girls is well known - and the gender gap is widening every year. There are several factors involved in this, but one of these is that many boys simply do not find enough books that really interest them. Writing books for boys has become a big industry now - and there are plenty of books if you take the trouble to look for them, but Deary was writing to this audience long before it became popular to do so. He writes books that boys want to read, and a boy who reads for pleasure will become a better reader. My sons love his books, and I love the fact that my son is enjoying reading them so much.
Along with the horrible parts though, there is plenty of humour and several digs at the establishment. There is the odd teacher joke as I have come of expect from Deary's books. There is plenty of gallows humour, which I'm sure some people could find in poor taste, but without these jokes, this book would simply become depressing. In particular I imagine referring to a group of nuns putting on act of being possessed as break dancing penguins might ruffle a few feathers. Of course the fact that the poor priest who was meant to have bewitched them ( but had really made the mistake of publicly criticising the Bishop) was tortured and burned alive wasn't quite so funny.
The most frightening part of this book is the many stories about children telling tales and have people burned and tortured as witches. Of course the wee girls who started the Salem witch trials, which would result in the deaths of 19 women and 1 man, as well as countless others tortured are the most famous. But Deary had several stories of children making up lies and watching their victims die. So much for the innocence of childhood.
My favourite part of the book was a recipe to kill your husband requiring several gruesome ingredients including the brains of a baby, the head of a decapitated robber, a dead mans finger nails etc... You brew it all up and feed it to your other half. I wouldn't need to go to so much trouble - I could just let him eat his own cooking.
My son's very favourite part is a we cartoon near the end of the book as the witch trials were coming to end. It seems the witch hunts were costing far too much money. A man is pictured saying "God says 'You should bot suffer a witch to live' ". The other fellow replies "I know but God doesn't have to pay the bills". Unfortunately this led to a very awkward conversation as to whether the bible really says that - it does of course. Why would God say such a thing when witches don't exist?
My only serious complaint with this book is the fact that the style of printing for this book may make it more difficult for children with dyslexia to read. The print is on coloured pages - but is quite clear and easy to read. The pages do not give off a glare under bright light, and this text is in a standard font. My son really likes these coloured pages - so I find it difficult to say they should be changed - but I do feel the print here is too small. I hope when the 20th anniversary edition comes out the print will be larger. I feel these books are so wonderful to engage reluctant readers - I hate to think that they might be more difficult for some children to read. My son had not problems reading this size print, but he is a confident reader. In addition to this issue, with the printing, i feel the highly stylised text on the cartoons would be especially difficult for a child with reading difficulties and would really prefer to see this in a standard font. There are other sections with very small stylised font to simulate handwriting as well. I can see the reason for a different font, but would still prefer it larger and darker.
If I were rating this based on my opinion alone - I'd go with 4.5 stars. I can's say witches interest me as much as most of the Horrible Histories subjects - but this isn't something I would rate down for - we all have our own tastes. I can't really rate down for describing horrible deaths. History really is horrible, one can only hope children reading this will grow up to be more tolerant as a result. I have a few issues with the print but nothing major. I can't say I learned much from this book, as I usually do with Deary's book, and I couldn't honestly recommend this for the average adult, but I did enjoy reading it, and I can certainly see it's value with children.
My son on the other hand gives this a full five stars and would give it more if he could. He really enjoyed the book and immediately asked for more in the series. The look of delight on his face when his Horrible Histories WW2 Handbook arrived today says it all as far as I am concerned. Any book that gets a child so fired up they can not wait to read the the rest of series is a very good book in my opinion.
My primary reason for buying these books is literacy - not history. I feel that good reading skills are the most important thing a child learns in the primary years and the very best way to cement good reading skills is to have the child read for pleasure. Sadly - this is one thing you can not force. You can not make your child love reading. So I am delighted to find a series that does this for me - that makes my child truly enjoy reading.
The fact that he is learning history is an added bonus. I honestly believe my child has learned more about history in a few months with Horrible Histories than in the few years preceding. Because he enjoys what he is reading so much - he remembers it. We have bought more books or looked up subjects online and learned more about several subjects we first started reading about with Horrible Histories, so these have proved a good starting point for him to build a base of knowledge around.
Series: Horrible Histories / The nasty bits at your fingertips! Discover the truth behind the pointy hats and black cats, and other idiotic ideas about witchcraft, and brace yourself for foul facts about the evil executions the poor people suffered. Want to know: which magic word was used to zap zits? why people were paid to prick a witch? the terrible torture inflicted by a turca? Everything you need to know about Witches - all the gore and more!