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The Danger Zone series of books seeks to inspire children's interest in history by getting them to imagine that they are a character in the period portrayed. (Other books in the series include Avoid becoming an Egyptian Pyramid Builder, Avoid being a Medieval Knight and Avoid being a Second World War Evacuee) The idea behind the books is to encourage young readers to empathise with the people who were alive at the time and to use their imaginations to get a flavour of the period.
The book begins by putting the reader straight into character. The year is 1492 and you are the son of poor parents living in a harbour town in South West Spain. You are 10 years old and it's time for you to find a job. You dream of becoming an explorer, but will the opportunity present itself? If it does, will you be strong enough to endure the hardships and danger of a long ocean voyage? I love the way the book draws children in from the start, setting the scene and highlighting a dilemma. I feel that children are much more likely to retain their interest if they feel personally involved with the events they are reading about.
How do you feel when Christopher Columbus chooses your town as the home base for his fleet? The reader is made to imagine what it would be like to be given an opportunity to be part of an adventure to faraway lands, but to weigh up the excitement along with the doom-mongering of other people. Many believed Columbus's voyage would end in disaster. Would you take the risk? I think that books that encourage young readers to look at situations from different angles, weighing up the pros and cons, really help children to think constructively.
As if the weevil-infested ship's biscuits, rats, damp and cold weren't enough to contend with on board ship, the book helps children to appreciate what it must've been like to be at sea for months with no sight of land, expecting to fall off the edge of the world if you sailed too far. (Columbus's view that the world was round had certainly not convinced everyone.)
This book provides a useful introduction to the life and times of Christopher Columbus, which makes an interesting and quite exciting story, showing how his discoveries came about by accident. He was trying to find a new route to Eastern Asia by sailing west. For his whole life and after three subsequent voyages, Columbus was convinced he had reached the Asian continent and the islands of Japan, but in fact he had reached the 'Bahama' islands, Cuba and Espanola. It is a story about triumphs and glory but also failure and humiliation, certainly a more balanced picture of the man than I remember in the history books I read as a child. This book doesn't just portray Columbus as a brave pioneer but as a glory-seeker, greedy for gold and power who showed a disregard for the lives of the people whose land he conquered.
The book encourages children to evaluate Columbus's contribution to history, on the one hand pointing out that many of his ideas were wrong, but on the other showing how his discoveries none the less had a huge impact, opening up the 'new world' and changing our view of it forever. But what was the price of this in terms of human lives? Readers are invited to reflect on whether Columbus was a hero or not. Certainly he received a hero's welcome from the king and queen on his return from his first voyage of discovery, but his enslavement of the local people makes shocking reading.
This is an unusual and engaging way of introducing the subject of the voyages of discovery and their significance. It brings together history and geography in a comprehensive way, as readers learn about the routes that were taken by the ships and the features of the islands discovered. As children become crew members on Columbus's expedition, they can imagine the uncomfortable and squalid conditions on board a ship and the excitement of exploring a new exotic island. Shipwrecks, near-mutiny, tropical diseases and quarrels with the natives are all dramatic scenarios that the reader has a chance to envisage on their imaginary voyage.
I think the book encourages lots of possibilities for discussion, raising some interesting moral questions about the rights and wrongs of conquering land, taking gold and converting the local people to Christianity. How can you 'discover' a country that is already inhabited? My daughter was shocked to read of the thousands of native people who were to die of diseases brought by the Spanish, including the common cold. However, although Columbus's conquests and shameful treatment of the natives seems completely unacceptable to the 21st century reader, the book does put them into context so that the reader can understand things from a 15th century perspective. The significance of trade in goods from Asia and the Middle East is explained simply, along with the rivalry between the monarchs of Spain and Portugal.
The layout of the book is eye catching and designed to hold a young reader's attention with an excellent balance between text and pictures. David Antram's illustrations use caricature, which gives them a striking, albeit slightly ugly, quality. What I love about his style is his ability to convey so much through the characters' facial expressions, such as the trepidation and exhaustion of the crew members. As readers learn that there were no beds or chairs on board ship, apart from in Columbus's private cabin and about the system of watches - four hours on duty then four hours of rest - they will be able to appreciate how tired the sailors must've felt all the time.
The use of speech bubbles and thought bubbles add a touch of dry humour. For example, in one picture where the sailors are crowded together below deck on the leaking, smelly, flea-infested ship, one of them asks, "Where's my private cabin?" In another picture, as settlers and natives quarrel violently, a crew member dodges the spears as he ponders his career choice and asks himself, "I wonder if I should have been a carpenter."
There is lots of detail in the pictures, which means that even children who are not the most fluent readers can take in a lot of information from just looking at the illustrations. For example, Columbus's three ships are clearly depicted so that the reader can see their features, comparing their sizes and observing differences, such as the big square sails of the Pinta (the fastest ship of the three) and the triangular sails of the Nina.
There is also an interesting picture of the globe, illustrating the world as Columbus believed it to be and a picture of the world as it really was. (Columbus believed that Japan was much closer than it actually was, not realising that the continents of North and South America and the Pacific Ocean were in the way!)
At just 32 pages (including a glossary), this books provides a surprising amount of relevant detail. In addition to the main text, the 'Handy Hints' offer advice on how to survive your time spent sailing with Columbus. These range from, "Sleep up on deck. It's cleaner and healthier than down below" to "Don't let any women on board - they're meant to be unlucky." There are also sections which offer advice on being a safe sailor, how to spot hopeful signs that you are approaching land and what things to look out for on the island. I am sure that this book would inspire children in role play and maybe lead them to write their own stories about adventures at sea.
I would recommend this book to children from about age 8 and upwards, particularly to accompany topic work at school. There is a useful glossary at the end of the book, which means that children can easily look up any terms they are unfamiliar with, thus encouraging them to become more independent in their learning and research skills.
The book has just enough humour to make it engaging to youngsters without the jokes becoming distracting. I like the fact that the book strikes a good balance between presenting facts and inviting children to interpret those facts for themselves. "If you were given the chance again, would you really want to sail with Christopher Columbus?" asks the author at the end of the book. Fortunately, with this book they can sail again and again, without leaving the comfort of the 21st century.
This book can be purchased new from Amazon sellers for £0.67