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This deceptively slim book contains a wealth of information about what it was like to be a schoolchild in Britain in the 1880s. Aimed at 7 to 11 year olds, the layout of the book is designed to hold a child's interest. Snippets of information are spread across the pages and there is a good balance between text and pictures, so it is easy for a child to assimilate the facts in a relaxed way, without feeling overwhelmed.
Author John Malam has written this book in the style of a light hearted guide book for a new pupil starting at a Victorian school. The book takes the reader right through the school day from their arrival at school shortly before 9 o clock - "if you get there early, you'll have some time to meet your friends - and enemies - in the playground" to the end of lessons at 5 o clock - "However, if you've been naughty during the day, you'll be told to stay behind." The way that the author keeps referring to "you" makes the reader feel drawn in, as if they are an eyewitness to a bygone age. The colourful, detailed and evocative illustrations by David Antram really help to recreate the Victorian atmosphere. I love the facial expressions of the characters portrayed, which convey so much about the experiences they are undergoing, sometimes happy, sometimes scared, sometimes bored, sometimes humiliated. It's fair to say that some of the teachers depicted look rather lugubrious and a bit scary to me, but my own children didn't seem fazed by this. The art style resembles caricature, which is not to everyone's taste. I find it a bit ugly, but my children were more amused by it.
From the title I had expected this book to be a kind of Horrible History, focussing on all the really awful aspects of Victorian school life, but actually I found it to be much more balanced than Terry Deary's books. Whilst the less pleasant aspects of being a Victorian schoolchild are certainly brought to the fore by references to the dunce's cap, heads being shaved by nit nurses, and lashings with the cane, Malam points out that it was only in 1870 that laws were passed stating that all children (not just the rich) had the right to an education. Schooling for 5 to 10 year olds became compulsory in 1880. So although Victorian schools left a lot to be desired, they represented progress of sorts. One thing I hadn't realised was that education did not become free until 1891, so children had to pay 2 pence (2d) a week. (There's a little picture of some Victorian coins here, which my youngest daughter appreciated, as she's fascinated by old money!) So although a child reading this book will obviously be struck by just how archaic some of the Victorian ideas about schooling were, they will also learn that the Victorian age was a time of great developments.
Reading this book will lead to plenty of opportunities for discussion. Children will notice vast differences in the Victorian schoolchild's experience and their own, but they may also notice areas where things haven't changed so much. Writing on slates, using outdoor toilets, learning pages and pages of text off by heart and doing sums on an abacus may seem incomprehensible to modern readers, but other features of the Victorian school day will be more familiar, such as starting the day with an assembly and taking the register. Children will be encouraged to think about what things have changed for the better. For example, was it a bit unfair that children labelled as lazy would be made to use a back straightener, which was supposed to make them sit up straight and concentrate? Was it a good idea for girls and boys to be unable to mix during school? Was there really any point in children being expected to learn useless facts, such as a duck's quack doesn't echo and a starfish doesn't have a brain? However, they might also consider whether some aspects of Victorian schooling ought to be preserved today. Is it still important to learn the 'three Rs', for example? Is being able to do sums in your head a useful skill?
The author has brought just enough humour into this book to stop it being too dry and to make it a fun, engaging read for children but without going over the top. I think too many jokes in a non-fiction book can be distracting, but John Malam gets it about right. I particularly like the 'Handy Hints' that are included throughout the book, which are tongue-in-cheek suggestions for how to get on well at school. These range from advice to learn your 12 times table (because old British currency was based on the number 12, there being 12 pennies in one shilling), to how to protect your backside before a thrashing!
My children liked the way the Victorian schoolchildren in the book come across as mischievous and spirited, despite their strict environment. A book about down-trodden, miserable children enduring a hellish school life would make grim reading for the average 7 to 11 year old. The picture Malam paints is of a school experience that is monotonous, often boring, sometimes brutal, but sometimes fun. There is a spread devoted to playground games, which paints a rather joyful picture of children skipping, playing marbles and rolling hoops. It is balanced by the menacing looking school bully lurking in the foreground and a couple of boys having a fight, but it's a really evocative picture of children being children - instead of being expected to earn their keep and go up chimneys. There is also a section devoted to end of school treats, with references to Punch and Judy shows visiting the school or magic lantern shows, where a projector would shine colourful pictures onto a screen - something which must have seemed extremely high tech and exciting. I like the use of speech bubbles and thought bubbles to give a cartoon-like quality to the illustrations. In the section on punishments, the culprit bends over to get the cane and we can see that he is thinking - "please don't notice the book down my trousers!" In another scene, a bored-looking female teacher pounds the piano and the speech bubble says - "I need a holiday too!"
I would certainly recommend this book for children interested in the Victorian period. For a book of only 32 pages (including the glossary and index) it manages to pack in a lot of useful information and it presents it in a clear and interesting way, stimulating young readers' imaginations as they put themselves in the Victorian child's shoes. This book can be bought from Amazon new for £8.25 (used for £4.86) which I admit is rather pricey, but perhaps not if you have more than one child who is interested in the subject or is learning about it at school. Other books in the 'You Wouldn't Want to Be' series include 'You Wouldn't Want To Be A Roman Gladiator' and 'You Wouldn't Want to be Married to Henry VIII.' I would definitely consider other books in the series, because I think the engaging writing style is a winner with kids. It makes history fun without making it too silly.