Monday, September 5, 2011

5. History 101

Don't Know Much About History? Your kids will after reading these! (And it won't be painful either.)
Americapedia: Taking the Dumb Out of Freedom, by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Daniel Ehrenhaft and Andisheh Nouraee, Walker & Company, $24.99 (hdbk), $16.99 (pbk), 12 and up, 240 pages.  A parody of the Pledge of Allegiance on this book's cover sums up what's inside: "One book, Under 300 Pages -- With Knowledge and Nonsense for All." But don't be mistaken. Though funny and clever, this primer ("citizen's manual") isn't messing around. By the time kids finish it, they'll have a basic grasp of U.S. civics, economics, foreign affairs, and the role of religion in politics; and be up-to-date on Supreme Court rulings on issues from stem cell research to abortion. (They'll just be laughing as they get there.) The authors write in a cheeky fashion to keep things light, with lots of silly pictures and captions. There are pictures of baby monkeys in a section about economics and an image of deli sausages "linking" Hussein to Bin Laden in one about terrorism. This is a must for any student with "U.S. History" on their syllabus or who just wants to know what's been going on out there -- whether it's with the health care debate or the first Continental Congress. The idea: make it fun and they will learn -- and maybe even form their own opinions. "Pick Your Change!" the authors encourage at the end -- find an issue that speaks to you and decide what you think.

Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea and Air, written by Stewart Ross, illustrated by Stephen Biesty, Candlewick, $19.99, ages 9-12, 96 pages. Hoist the mizzen sails, release the ballast! One read through this artful history book and readers will feel like they've explored the world from land, sea and sky. Inside, vivid stories and detailed cutaways recreate the voyages of real-life explorers: Pytheas who sailed the Arctic Circle without even a compass in 340 B.C., the Apollo 11 crew that landed on the moon in 1969 and 12 more amazing explorers from Marco Polo Sir Edmund Hillary. Every chapter features unfolding diagrams that show the workers and parts of vessels in ink and watercolor, all meticulously rendered. Readers see cross-sections of Mary Kingsley's African river steamer (everything from the wheel inside a paddle box to a guy stoking a firebox) and Auguste Piccard's gondola as it embarks on a voyage into the stratosphere. Biesty (illustrator of the acclaimed Incredible Cross-Sections written by Richard Platt) combines technological detail and atmospheric drawing to bring readers into an explorer's experience. Readers get a sense of the dangers of the journey, and the explorer's fearlessness and fortitude. This one's for any child wishing they could hitch a ride on history.
How the Sphinx Got to the Museum, written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland, Blue Apple Books, $17.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages. A smashed sphinx is pulled from the earth and pieced back together thousands of years after an attempt to erase it from memory in this colorful, cleverly told story. The sphinx, which now sits in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is one of many pieces of art that was ordered by pharaoh Hatshepsut to laud her achievements, then defaced and buried after her death for reasons historians can only speculate about. Hartland's tale traces the sphinx from Hatshepsut to the sculptor who carved it, the priests who honored it and an heir who defaced it (her stepson). Then Hartland meets up with the archaeologist who uncovered it, the government agency that released it for display and the movers who trucked it to New York. Next, it's off to the curator, conservators, riggers, a registrar, a retouch artist, a photographer, the docent telling this story and finally you, the reader (and museum visitor). Hartland makes the mystery behind this legendary statue irresistible with whimsical drawings that lead you around the page and repetitive storytelling. After each new person is introduced, she goes back through the list of those who played an earlier part in the sphinx's story -- each time highlighting their job title in a unique way ("Artist" is written on a paint palette, "Curator" is penned on lined paper). If every historic tale was told in such an entertaining way, no one would ever dismiss the past as dull.

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