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Rowdy Revolutions - Terry Deary

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Author: Terry Deary / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 02 June 2011 / Genre: History / Subcategory: Non-Fiction / Category: History & The Past: General Interest / Publisher: Scholastic / Title: Rowdy Revolutions / ISBN 13: 9781407111919 / ISBN 10: 1407111919 / Alternative title: Horrible Histories Special: Rowdy Revolutions - Terry Deary / Alternative ISBN 10: 0590543768

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      19.10.2012 08:42
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      An entertaining history book for children

      In this Horrible Histories special, Terry Deary focusses on revolutions, "one of the most gruesome, gory and gut-churning bits of history." From the Ancient Greeks to the present day, it is clear that the human race shows no sign of learning to live in peace and harmony. Like all books in the Horrible Histories series, Rowdy Revolutions is written in a chatty, irreverent style which means that the subject matter, which might otherwise be very dark and depressing, engages the reader and sparks their curiosity.

      In my opinion, what Horrible History books do so well is focus on striking pieces of information, which will be memorable to the reader. Information that shocks, intrigues or amuses is more likely to be retained by the reader. Rowdy Revolutions contains lots of fascinating snippets of information, the sort of things that a child is likely to want to tell their friends, family and even their teacher about. The book therefore encourages children to talk about what they are learning, share ideas and participate in lively discussions.

      Here you can read the extraordinary story of what happened to Oliver Cromwell's head after his death. You can learn how Madame Marie Tussaud cashed in on the Terror of the French Revolution by making death masks of heads from the guillotine basket, many years before she set up her famous London waxworks. You can try not to laugh at the unfortunate tale of a soldier on the operating table during the American War of Independence and what happened when a cannon ball came crashing into the room. You can also discover some bizarre pieces of history trivia, such as the only king to be assassinated by a monkey and why the Romanian secret police had a talking parrot brought in for questioning.

      I like the way this book encourages children to question things rather than to just blindly assume that something is accurate because they have read it in a history book or because a teacher says so. For example, the author encourages children to understand the difference between a 'fact' and an 'opinion.' Of course, being ready to question what you read should also apply to Terry Deary's own books. At times he can seem quite arrogant, constantly stressing that Horrible Histories tell you the whole truth, but other history books leave things out. For this reason, I think it's important that children balance what they read in the Horrible Histories with other history books too.

      In keeping with the relaxed style of Horrible Histories, this book focusses less on dates and more on the human experience of history. Often the reader is asked to put him/herself in the position of the people involved and to use his/her imagination. For instance, what would you do if you were Queen Elizabeth I, faced with the rebellious northern earls? How would you fare as a soldier in an American civil war battle situation? This book teaches us a lot about the personalities of history. Spare a thought for poor old Robespierre, for instance, leader of the French Revolution, who tried to cheat the guillotine by taking his own life. Amazingly when he tried to shoot himself in the head, he missed and the shot went into his jaw. I imagine that the only thing worse than going to the guillotine is going to the guillotine with a bandaged, throbbing jaw!

      The information is presented in lots of different ways to hold the reader's attention, such as newspaper reports, diary entries, letters, quizzes and comic strips. For example, you can read a poem about the Boston Tea Party or an imaginary newspaper article about French Revolution leader, John Paul Marat. There is even a spoof problem page letter from one of the Zhou people of China, living in terrible conditions under the Shang dynasty. The agony aunt's advice? "Rebel! Rise up against them." The Zhou rebels did just that in 1025 BC.

      The chapter called 'How to be Revolting' is a tongue in cheek guide to planning a revolution in which readers are encouraged to fit new words to old tunes and come up with their own stirring revolutionary song. This section of the book explores some of the most famous revolutionary slogans. I love the cartoon in which a man struggles to read Karl Marx, whose complex books were well beyond the literacy skills of the people he intended to liberate - "Workers of the world untie! You have nothing to lose but your chins," he reads, as his companion looks on, bewildered.

      You can also read the fictional memoirs of Leon Trotsky's bodyguard. Find out how, despite running away to a heavily guarded house in Mexico to escape Stalin's secret police, Trotsky ended up with an ice-pick in his skull. Comedy is used to good effect here as the bodyguard is portrayed as a bungling incompetent. The story of Wat Tyler's rebellion is also told in an amusing style. Wat's demands are written in illiterate scrawl - "No poll tacks, not never agen." The comic strip illustrations show King Richard II declaring, "Richard one, Peasants nil" as he hoists Wat's head on the tip of the royal lance. (The humour can certainly border on bad taste throughout this book, but that probably helps make it memorable!)

      Amongst all the silliness and laughter are some serious questions to ponder. A chart showing the millions who died in revolutions makes sombre reading. If the deaths of 10 in every 100 people in the Russian Revolution (1905-1939) sounds bad, just look at the figures for Cambodia - 30 people died out of every 100 in the period 1975 to 1979. Children can compare the data, looking at the length of the conflicts and the number of casualties and they can consider why revolutions seem to have got bloodier. Why do revolutions happen? What's the difference between a revolution and a rebellion? Is it better to live on your knees or die on your feet? These questions are all explored. The book also touches on how words like 'rebel', 'freedom fighter', 'terrorist' and 'revolutionary' can all be used to describe the same thing, depending on which side you happen to be on. These questions can all be explored through debate and discussion.

      It's an entertaining and colourful history lesson. Although I find the constant alliteration ('foul fighting facts', 'rotten rebels', 'ruthless rulers' etc.) a bit irritating along with the rather corny puns, I am not 11 years old, so hardly a member of the target audience. I can see the advantage of this, not just to keep the tone light and fun but it is another way to emphasise key themes. Children may be more likely to take note if they are reading about 'cruel communists' than just 'communists', for example.

      Having read a lot of Terry Deary's other work, I did fear that this book might have a left-wing bias, full of pro-republican and anti-royalist sentiment, but it was surprisingly well-balanced. The only problem I have with this book, as with some of the other Horrible Histories, is that it paints a rather negative picture of more traditional history books. Are we going to end up with kids who can't be bothered to read history books unless they are full of jokes, gory bits, cartoons and silliness?

      I also find Terry Deary's constant jokes about clueless teachers to be a bit tedious, not exactly encouraging children to respect their teachers. My daughter always loved Horrible Histories, but not at the expense of more formal history lessons and books. I feel that books like Rowdy Revolutions are particularly good for kids with poor attention spans, but eventually children do need to learn to get to grips with longer, more serious texts.

      What is good about Rowdy Revolutions is that you don't have to read the book in any particular order. You can dip in and out of it, choosing whatever chapter appeals to you. For instance, if you find that the chapter on the French Revolution really interests you, you can go straight to that. On the other hand, if Revolting Romans don't interest you at all, you can ignore that chapter altogether.

      One downside is that it is slightly out of date now as it only goes up to the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania. A lot has happened in the world since then.

      As Horrible Histories go, this is certainly one of the most gruesome. It is not for the squeamish, but those who love "History with the nasty bits left in" will not be disappointed. New copies can be obtained from sellers at Amazon from £1.10.

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