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This is the story of a little boy who goes for a walk in the woods, trips up, falls down a shaft and wakes up in a place where everything seems different. He encounters a girl who doesn't look like any other girls he knows and she takes him to meet her family at a camp where everything is made of wood, stone, animal skin and bones. The boy has gone back in time to the Stone Age and the book tells of his adventures with his new friend, Om, and her people.
Stone Age Boy is a simple story, yet thought-provoking in many ways, a great introduction to prehistoric times for primary school children, providing a fascinating picture of how people lived. There is a lot of detail in the illustrations with particular reference to such things as hunting, food preparation and making tools.
What I like about the style is that, although Satoshi Kitamura provides a lot of information, particularly in pictorial form, he leaves some things for the reader to work out for him/herself. For instance, he never actually explains why the Stone Age gets its name, but it becomes apparent from the references to making tools, with illustrations of how flints were chipped, trimmed, sharpened and made into knives, spearheads and other tools.
The book doesn't just spoon feed children with all the answers but it shows them how to use existing information to find out new information. For example, when the boy first meets Om's family, he remarks, "and what a family it was!" but the author does not elaborate on why there are so many for them. As children read more of the book and take in more of the information, they will probably be able to appreciate for themselves that Stone Age people lived together in such large groups for protection and efficiency. They see how Om's family work as a team.
A parent or teacher reading the book with a child could stimulate lots of discussion by asking questions such as, 'Why do you think Stone Age people painted pictures on the walls of caves?' or 'Why did they have campfires?' or "Why did they need tools?"
This is a story that can be appreciated on different levels. Some readers may take it at face value as a tale of a boy who really does travel back in time to the Stone Age, However, other children will ponder whether it was all a dream, a fantasy. Being able to choose what interpretation you put on a story is a crucial part of enhancing literary appreciation and I feel this book would suit those children who have progressed from books where the ending is always crystal clear.
The book makes you ask, if it was all a dream, does it really matter? The message seems to be that the most important thing is not whether something is a dream but what you do with that dream. If you let yourself be inspired by the dream, that can only be a good thing. The narrator uses his Stone Age experience positively and becomes an archaeologist when he grows up. My daughter liked the way that the author doesn't tell us for definite whether it was a dream or not. Of course, not all readers like ambiguity and want a more obvious conclusion to their storybooks, so I can see how what one child might find intriguing, another would just feel frustrated by.
Certainly, the dream-like atmosphere of the story is assisted by the illustrations. For those parts of the book where the narrator is in the modern world, the pictures are grey, dull and a little hazy, but as soon as he wakes up in The Stone Age the colours become more vibrant and colourful. Overall, the illustrations are very expressive - particularly the pictures inside the cave, where pictures of animals cover the walls - but there is one particular spread of pictures that is just a bit too busy, with so many small illustrations crammed into two pages that I think a young reader might find the detail overwhelming.
The author brings subtle humour to the story. I like the way that features of the modern world collide with the Stone Age world, with amusing consequences. My daughter particularly liked the part where there is a party at the camp to celebrate a successful hunt. There is music and dancing and the narrator tells us that he "joined in on air guitar." The moment where the narrator and Om first meet is also rather amusing. She checks out his glasses, trainers and jeans, whilst he marvels at her weird appearance too. It does look slightly ridiculous to see this rather geeky looking, bespectacled boy amongst all these bearded people dressed in animal skins!
This book looks at the Stone Age from an unsentimental perspective. For example, we see hunters throwing spears at a reindeer then carrying it home and cooking it on their camp fire. For those children who associate reindeers with Father Christmas, this might not make very pleasant reading. However, I appreciate the way that the author encourages children not to judge things by 21st century standards and to appreciate that Stone Age people needed to perform tasks necessary for survival.
What is interesting about this book is the way that, although it obviously makes us aware of vast differences in how people lived then to the way we live now, it is also possible to spot similarities. Some things have not changed. People in Stone Age times prepared food, made clothes, celebrated, danced, sung, painted, just as we still do.
On the inside covers of the book there is an interesting collection of animals that would have been around in the prehistoric era, such as mammoths, cave bears, wolves and Arctic Foxes. There is also a useful timeline at the end of the book which makes clear how long the Stone Age period lasted and puts into some kind of perspective just how long ago it was. For instance, it tells us that cave paintings were found in 13,000 BC. The first pyramids were not built until around 2000 BC.
I would recommend this book, particularly for children who have been learning about prehistory at school, but for any youngster with an interest in time travel stories. It is a very basic time travel story but would certainly whet the appetite for more complex time travel stories later on. There is one rather scary moment involving an encounter with a cave bear, but I don't think there is anything disturbing for younger readers here.
Although it is an entertaining adventure, my daughter did feel a little bit underwhelmed by the fact that the boy went back to his normal time at a rather crucial point in the story, whereas it would have been more exciting to have seen that particular incident through to its dramatic conclusion first. So if you're really looking for a thrilling tale, this might not be ideal. However, if you want an educational book that captures the wonder of a young boy travelling back in time to a fascinating era, this story has plenty of charm.
I was interested to read that Satoshi Kitamura's inspiration for this book came from a visit to the South of France to see cave paintings. His enthusiasm really does shine through and my daughter expressed interest in going to see them too. All in all, this book combines fiction and non-fiction very well. Alas, copies seem to be astonishingly expensive on Amazon at the moment, starting at a ridiculous £23.97 for paperback. Frankly, you'd be mad to pay that much. But it's well worth trying to find one second hand or at your local library.