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The Gruesome Truth series of history books covers such topics as the Aztecs, the Egyptians and the Romans, as well as the Greeks, the subject of this book. The books are aimed at children from around age 7 and upwards who are sufficiently competent readers to enjoy factual books as well as fiction. This is a super book for school topic work and it helps children to develop their research skills by using the contents page and index to locate the information they are seeking and using a glossary to find out what words mean.
The author promises that the book will cover, "The gory and grisly bits that no one ever tells you." It makes me smile a little as this is hardly a novel concept. Are there any children's history books these days that don't focus on the gory stuff? However, it is a formula that seems to work. This book contains many brightly coloured, detailed illustrations so that young readers don't feel overwhelmed by text alone. The pictures of slave auctions, warships and chariot races really convey the flavour of the period. Key terms are highlighted in bold throughout, so that children can look them up in the glossary if they need to. Each two-page spread sets out a well-known fact about the Greeks and then that fact is explored further, with reference to the 'Gruesome truth.' For example, in the section devoted to diet we see a menu for a Greek dinner party that I would have loved to see them tackle on Come Dine With Me. It includes Roast turtledove, fattened snails and iris bulbs in vinegar. Throughout the book there are Guess the Mystery Object sections and True or False challenges, which encourage children to think for themselves. I like the way that the subject matter is presented with additional pieces of information set apart from the main text. This makes the information more accessible to children, as points of interest grab their attention and motivate them to keep reading.
In my opinion, the author has done well to cover this vast topic so comprehensively in a relatively slim volume of just 32 pages. The focus is not on remembering dates but in recreating the atmosphere of the age and portraying aspects of life in Ancient Greece in an engaging way. I like the way the book explores this period of history from different perspectives, showing what it was to be a slave, a soldier, a woman, a physician, etc. Although this is primarily a history book, it also has links with geography as children learn that the Greeks lived in city states which stretched from the Greek mainland and islands to parts of Turkey and Bulgaria. It also ties in with literature as we learn about the myths and legends that were written down in great poems. I must admit to finding the pictures of the harpies, Cyclops and Minotaur pretty scary!
Although books about ancient history obviously show children how different the world was then to today, it can also be interesting to spot similarities. The Olympic games, for example, began in ancient Greece 2,500 years ago. With the London Olympics approaching, it would be amusing for children to contrast the events. In ancient Greece we learn that most competitors were nude, for instance, and only men were allowed to compete. I was shocked to read that any married woman found watching the games would be executed! You can find out all about the strange sports that were on offer, including the Pankration or 'Complete Victory' contest where you could bring down your opponent by any means apart from eye gouging and biting. You can also try to imagine what it would have been like to have to run four lengths of the stadium in full armour which weighed up to 27 kilograms. (The London Olympics might seem a slightly boring prospect by comparison.)
The book encourages children to look at the incredible legacy left by the Greeks. Sometimes children read about civilizations from long ago and don't understand how it has any relevance to the present day. I liked the way the author showed how many ideas that began in ancient Greece are still important today. For example, we learn how the concept of democracy originates from ancient Greece. Citizens were given the right to vote for their rulers. Admittedly this only applied to men over 30 who were landowners, but it was progress of sorts. It might not sound at all fair by today's standards, but children need to approach history without falling into the trap of judging everything by 21st century standards.
The book's tone never becomes too silly or mocking. Although some of the things the Greeks did seem shocking and ludicrous by today's standards, the book shows that there was logic behind many of these seemingly strange practices. For example, it may be quite amusing to think of the Greek physician, Hippocrates, collecting samples of ear wax, tears and snot to find out what was wrong with a patient, but this diagnostic approach was a huge step forward from just believing that illness was a punishment from the gods. In fact, Hippocrates is considered to be the founder of modern medicine. Many children might find the references to animal sacrifices a bit unpleasant, but they will learn how this was such an important part of Greek life. There is a rather graphic picture of a man tugging a reluctant-looking sheep towards a chopping block that is covered in blood, which some might find upsetting. However, I strongly approve of books that challenge children to broaden their thinking and try to view things objectively and from the perspectives of the people who were alive at the time.
Matt Buckingham's illustrations are expressive and often very amusing. My daughter's favourite was of two soldiers dropping a bug bomb (a clay pot filled with scorpions) on the head of an enemy. It looks like something out of a Carry On film, but this was indeed one of the tactics the Greeks used to capture cities, along with poisoning the water and damaging the crops. Some of the pictures may be a bit gruesome, but they are always relevant.
The Gruesome Truth About The Greeks is available new from sellers at Amazon for £4.78. It's an informative, well-presented book, definitely worth a read if your child has an interest in this period. It covers a range of topics including diet, medicine, warfare and crime and punishment. For more detail, The Groovy Greeks in the Horrible Histories series is a better bet, although the vibrant artwork and clear presentation of this book makes it particularly suitable for younger children.