Every once in a while a book will come out that perfectly achieves what it initially set out to do. How They Croaked, by Georgia Bragg, is a children’s book (though I use that term loosely) which will completely gross the reader out to no end in all kinds of unimaginable ways, yet does it with intelligence, wit, and historical accuracy. The purpose of this work is to inform the audience how some of the world’s most famous people died, and the horrific journey their last days took them on, in a world where medicine was either in its infancy, or the doctors at hand just did not know what the heck they were doing. Everyone from Henry VIII and George Washington, to Cleopatra and Charles Dickens is profiled here, each getting their own brief chapter with plenty of neat little factoids and nuggets of information scattered about the overall disgusting subject matter. Now, why is this perfect for children? Well, they just love gross things! I borrowed this from a colleague and read a few chapters to a fifth grade class I was substituting in, and they loved it so much that five of them went out and bought it that weekend. I also lent it to students in older grades, and they too loved it. Oh, and what about me and people my age and older? Yes, the consensus is complete: this is a book that can be enjoyed by all.
I must admit, when I first read it, it took me a long time to figure out whether this was aimed at children or adults. Some of the information is pretty heavy, so I would be careful about recommending it, depending on the maturity level of the reader, but when I returned the copy I borrowed (I have since made the purchase), the person who lent it to me said it can be found in the children’s section at Barnes & Noble. I took a step back and grabbed onto a desk. I was just a little surprised, but it also allowed me to read this to kids in school, because after all, it is a children’s book. As a parent or teacher, tread lightly at first, and sift through the material before reading it out loud, but overall, I think you will be very pleased, and your students will too.
Subtitled “The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous”, this book which prides itself on featuring too much information will really enlighten anyone with a love of history on how exactly some of our most famous figures died. Ironically, it is one of the great curiosities we have as human beings. When someone tells you that a friend or acquaintance died, what do we usually ask first? Probably, how? The teacher who gave me this book, said that whenever she tells her first grade students about a famous person and says they are dead now, again, they always ask, “How did he die?”. Even when I am reading about someone on Wikipedia, halfway through I find myself wandering to the section on their death. If you are one of these people, buy this book!
What sold me is how each chapter is written in such a nonchalant way. Several times I found myself reading something shocking and not even realizing it, before going back and saying to myself, “Oh my God!” We know that Henry VIII virtually ate himself to death, and rumor has it his body exploded, but did you know one of his thighs actually split open and they used hot irons to try to melt it closed? We know that George Washington died of an infection in his mouth, but did you know his doctors accidentally killed him with the horrific ways they tried to save him? Not to spoil the “fun” for anyone, but let’s just say that you probably had a better chance of surviving anything back then by being left alone rather than seeing a doctor. They performed bloodletting on people like it was going out of style and treated forced vomiting (and other things) like it was a miraculous new treatment. Then there is a chapter, like on Napoleon, where you will laugh, cry, shake your head, and swallow continuously to prevent yourself from throwing up, all within a couple of paragraphs. Reading this with a group of adults? You can set an over/under on how many different doctor’s fingers prodded the bullet hole wound of dying president James Garfield. The chapters also have funny names, like “I Hate Islands” for Napoleon, and “Little Mouth of Horrors” for Washington. And let’s just say you will never look at the dollar bill the same way again. Did I mention this is a children’s book?
To wrap this up, if you are a person who enjoys medical history, shockingly morbid descriptions of death and dying, or just have an unending amount of curiosity, then I cannot think of a more perfect binding of stories ever assembled. I must give the author (and illustrator Kevin O’Malley) full marks for putting out a product that is as historically accurate as any narrative or biopic, yet written so humorously and simplistically that it can appeal to nearly any age group. The proof is in the pudding when it comes to sparking the interests of children and giving them something enjoyable to read, because we all know how hard that is, but they have accomplished that with this book. My only question remaining is, how about a part two?