* Prices may differ from that shown
The Gruesome Truth series of history books covers such topics as the Aztecs, the Greeks and the Romans, as well as the Egyptians, the subject of this book. The books are ideal for children from around age 7 and upwards who have developed sufficient reading competence to progress from fiction to factual books, no longer connecting books with learning to read but reading to learn. This is an excellent book for topic work on the Egyptians and it helps children to develop simple research skills, such as using the contents page and index to locate the appropriate part of the book to answer a specific question and using a glossary to find out what words mean.
I have to smile when I see that the book aims to tell us about the Egyptians with specific reference to "the ghastly, grisly bits not normally told." Are there any children's history books these days that don't focus on the gruesome? You can't argue with a formula that seems to work, however, as these books do hold a child's interest. This book contains lots of colourful and expressive illustrations so that young readers don't get bogged down by too much text. The pictures of elaborately decorated coffins and carved tablets and wall paintings depicting battles really convey the atmosphere and flavour of the period. Key terms are highlighted in bold throughout, so that children can instantly recognise these words and look them up in the glossary if they need to. Each two-page spread sets out a well-known fact about the Egyptians and then that fact is explored, with reference to the 'Gruesome truth.' For example, children are presented with a simple fact - "Egyptian doctors trained at special schools. They could stitch wounds and mend broken bones" and then they read about some of the strange cures for illnesses. Did you know that one Egyptian medicine was made from 19 kinds of poo or that a dead mouse cut in half and placed on the gums was believed to cure toothache? In addition there are guess the mystery object sections and true or false challenges. It's a book which tries to make children think for themselves instead of just spoon feeding them the information. I like the way that the subject matter is presented with additional snippets of information set apart from the main text, which I feel makes it more accessible to children as there is always going to be one fascinating fact that jumps out and grabs the attention of even the more reticent readers.
In my opinion the author deserves a lot of credit for covering so many aspects of Egyptian life in a relatively slim volume of just 32 pages, giving children a good introductory grasp of one of the greatest civilisations of the past. The emphasis is not on remembering dates but in recreating the mood of the age and portraying daily life in Ancient Egypt in an engaging way. Although it may seem like children are just collecting a lot of rather pointless yet intriguing facts, these trivia snippets always stem from a main theme. For instance, children learn yucky facts about guinea worms in the drinking water in the context of learning about the crucial role of the River Nile in Egyptian life. I like the way the book explores this period of history from different perspectives, showing what it was to be a child, a peasant, a slave, a pharaoh etc. When we think of the Egyptians we usually think of mummies and pyramids and it's often worth remembering that it was only the wealthy who had their bodies mummified and were buried in tombs. Although this is primarily a history book, it also has links with geography as children learn about the hot deserts that make up Egypt and the location of the River Nile. It touches on science too in its discussion of mummification with reference to the various body parts and also methods of preservation.
Although books about ancient history obviously show children how different the world was then to today, it can also be interesting to spot similarities. It is interesting to learn that the peasants who built the pyramids went on strike when they didn't get paid, which shows that there is nothing particularly new about industrial action. The fact that rich Egyptians wore make-up and wigs was of interest to my daughter, who was particularly intrigued to learn that wigs were made from human hair which the wig maker often had to comb first to remove lice eggs! Yes, even nits have a very long history. It was fascinating to my daughter to realise that make-up, tattoos, skin moisturisers and soaps were a big feature of life in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians even used a paste made from crushed bird bones, oil and tree gum to remove body hair.
I suspect that most children, my daughter included, are going to enjoy the section on mummies the most. This part of the book is explained very well. It could easily have just become a catalogue of gruesome facts about brains being removed through the nose with a wire and intestines being kept in canopic jars. There's plenty of this, of course, but the author explains simply but clearly the reason for all this, the Egyptians' belief in the afterlife and how they thought that a body had to be whole in order to enjoy the next life.
It would send out the wrong message for children to judge the Egyptians by 21st century standards and scoff at what seem like primitive practices, but the book makes children realise what a complicated process mummification was and how there was logic behind these seemingly strange practices. Although they may seem primitive today, the Egyptians were clever and forward-thinking. Similarly, modern children might find the section on hunting a bit distasteful, but they will learn how the Egyptians depended on their hunting skills. There is a rather graphic picture of a hippo with a rope round its neck which upset my daughter a bit (she being of the generation that is used to seeing friendly, pink, story book hippos who eat cake!) but the book explains how hippos were killed because of the danger they posed to boats and crops along the Nile. I think books that challenge children to broaden their thinking and try to view things objectively and through the eyes of the people who were alive at the time are teaching important skills.
The illustrations by Matt Buckingham add a welcome touch of humour without being too silly. At times they push the boundaries into bad taste a little, but they are always relevant. For example, we are told that killing or injuring a cat was punishable by death because cats were considered sacred by the Egyptians, and there is a picture of a very-worried looking man who just realised he has driven his chariot over an unsuspecting moggy and flattened it!
The Gruesome Truth About The Egyptians is available new from sellers at Amazon for £4.84. It's an informative, well-presented book, definitely worth a read if your child has an interest in this period covering a range of topics including the pharaohs, criminial punishments and Egyptian gods. However, for more detail, the The Awesome Egyptians in the Horrible Histories series is a better bet. The artwork and clear presentation of this book makes it particularly suitable for younger children though.