I grabbed a handful of Ancient Mesopotamia books at the library the other day to go along with where we are in Story of the World (Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians). Most were of the predictable Dorling-Kindersley variety, namely tons of pictures and drawings. These are okay at this age because the kids can flip through them and not necessarily need the text to guide them through the images.
But they are also full of fluff. The pictures are fluff, and don’t even necessarily reflect the time period. What does a picture of a cracked and crumbling clay bowl tell you about how a society lived? Sometimes, not as much as a simple line drawing.
Which is why I’m so impressed with another book I picked up in the same section: They Lived Like this in Ancient Mesopotamia, by Marie Neurath (illustrated by Evelyn Worboys).
As it was published in 1964 and seems to be based on a filmstrip (remember those?) I was actually NOT looking forward to reading this book. I thought it would be dull and outdated (huh? yeah, I know most of what we know about ancient civilizations hasn’t changed in the last fifty years).
Anyway, I was wrong; it’s been a pleasant surprise.
“They Lived Like This” is a living book at its finest, and as an older book, it could also teach kids that they don't need all the flashy graphics to appreciate a civilization and its history in detail.
The book features simple line illustrations with spots of colour using an “isotype” process that was new at the time. The areas of colour are selected to draw attention to specific details. The drawings themselves are based on ancient carvings and the author explains a bit about the artistic style of the time (like why they’ve made a tower exactly the same height as its builders so they could all fit in the scene).
Based on these historical graphics, the book actually demonstrates how real historians actually learn the details of a society's day-to-day life from its carvings and other art. The text is simple, clear and never overwhelming - but also not dumbed-down like some kids' books today. Sentences are rich and varied: “But the land was dry. As they grew wiser they learned to dig canals, to water the land with river water, to use the plough, and to keep sheep and cattle.”
In 32 well-laid-out, well-written pages, with lots of white space and pauses for reflection, the book covers everything from farming, ancient gods and the ziggurats, the invention of the wheel and styles of warfare.
This book would be suitable for a confident young reader or as a read-aloud for Grade 1 and up.
This book is a perfect complement to all those flashy “eyewitness” books that come with internet links, CD’s, all the bells and whistles… that, as I’ve seen, ultimately don't contain more information than this “old-fashioned” book.
Which I guess just proves what Charlotte Mason educators have been saying all along: sometimes, the "fluff" is merely a gorgeous distraction. And sometimes, the most gorgeous history books are basically well-illustrated twaddle.