Thursday, May 1, 2008

Mysteries of History

At a certain point in a young child's life they begin to have accumulated enough of the rudiments of knowledge to actually make some sort of sense out of the wild, awesome and mysterious world which they encountered as an infant. All of sudden they have enough facts to make sense of things and can manipulate those facts to draw their own conclusions. It is as if they have cleared enough of the undergrowth of ignorance to see some of the trees and bushes.

And when they do they begin to have questions. Questions about what happened, when, why, to whom, where, etc. They want more facts, more than just the rudiments. This flowering of curiosity dovetails with storytelling which at its heart is the attempt to know where we came from and why we are here. All stories directly or indirectly are framed by these two questions.

This turning point, where they have moved beyond wrestling with the process of learning and are engaging with the substance of learning is a wonderful moment and conversations between parent and child suddenly take on a richness that did not exist before. The child begins to come into their own as they try and makes sense of things for themselves. They have moved beyond simply accumulating facts and are beginning to interpret those facts.

There is no telling quite what historical event will seize a child's imagination. Dinosaurs and Egypt seem to be perennial favorites but it can be almost anything. The topics of fascination often have an element of something that could not or should not have happened, but did. Something inexplicable to our understanding of how the world works happened. It has elements of conundrum, enigma and mystery. The best books and stories about whatever the event is, combine what happened (history) with how it happened (reference) and engages the child with why it happened (philosophy and religion).

There are three classes of books that can help feed a child's interest in the mysteries of history. The first are collections of essays or chapters about particular events such as Brian Fagan's Seventy Great Mysteries of the Ancient World or Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World or Bill Manley's The Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt. These have the advantage of leading them into broader pastures. They may pick up the book to read more about one particular incident but get drawn into other stories along the way. The best of these have good substance and narrative direction.

The second category of books would be almost reference materials. Oddly enough, Reader's Digest does a good job in this arena. Their format, such as with Strange Stories and Amazing Facts, has often been to have small entries of a few paragraphs explaining some item. These tend to be substantive but well written. Unfortunately, the reference type format can be the worst abused though as well. There are an awful lot of books of this sort that are at best a hodge-podge of undigested information, written in different styles by different contributors, stapled together on a backdrop of garish illustrations and distracting side bars.

And then there are the narrative stories. The best of these are simply wonderful. The child is drawn in by the quality of the writing and the drama of the plot but in the process, ends up learning a lot as well. The American author, Walter Lord, was a master at this: A Night to Remember (about the Titanic), A Time to Stand (about the Alamo), Incredible Victory (about the battle of Midway), are each powerful stories so engrossing and engaging that you only later realize you are learning a lot of history as well.

And there are not only non-fiction books to choose from. There are many, many excellent historical fiction stories which engage a child's interest but are factually well grounded and impart a lot of useful knowledge. At the middle of the independent reader level you have such titles as those by this week's Featured Author, Marguerite Henry, (Justin Morgan Had a Horse and King of the Wind) or for older Young Adult readers, there is the phenomenal Flashman series by George Macdonald Fraser from which whole swaths of history can be learned while enjoying the outrageous, laugh-out-loud antics of the fictional protagonist, Flashman.

The best books explaining the mysteries of history tend to be pitched at the older Independent Reader level and the Young Adult level. There are some good picture books but there also tends to be a perilously high level of dross among those books pitched at the younger level.

Effectively kids at Independent Reader/Young Adult level (ten to fifteen years-old) are starting to exert some degree of control over their reading environment - they are following up on what they are interested in, not just what is handed to them. As a parent, sometimes it can be a little frustrating. On the one hand you want them to exercise that autonomy and indulge those interests. On the other hand you want to direct them away from fluff. I find it hard to exercise self-restrain and let them do their own research. I keep wanting to help direct their efforts and shape their conclusions. It requires an aching level of self-control not to interfere too much.

When I was maybe twelve or fifteen, I went through a phase of intense curiosity and interest about the Bermuda Triangle, that mysterious feature of the western mid-Atlantic where a disproportionate number of shipwrecks and other incidents are purported to occur. This phase of interest lasted a couple of years in which I ended up reading a dozen books or more on the subject. At the end of it I was convinced that this was much ado about nothing. Yes, there were many fascinating shipwrecks and sea mysteries, just as there were anywhere in the world. And there were more of them in this particular region simply because there were more ships in this heavily trafficked part of the ocean.

One of my sons became interested in the Bermuda Triangle at a much younger age - probably seven or eight. Despite my best efforts to get good books into his hands, he was always coming home from the library with some ham-fistedly written, theoretically fact-based book, discussing aliens, sea monsters, and other absurd theories about the Bermuda Triangle. In part he was too young to easily analyze the information and in part, his intense curiosity was drawing him towards increasingly fringe books that were purveying titillating twaddle.

Not being able to control what he found in the library, the best I could do was to be available to talk about what he was reading and providing some counterbalance to the more nonsensical "information" without appearing to be overbearing or intense. He is still intrigued, but just as with my own experience, the more he has read, the more skeptical he has become. Despite the immense effort of self-control required, it is often best to just let the process take its own course, with confidence that it will work out in the end. That is easier said than done, though.

The historical mysteries in which children become fascinated probably fall into four categories.

Why Mysteries - These are mysteries where we know what happened but not why it happened. The best example would be the mysterious appearance of the Mary Celeste, found sailing unmanned and abandoned in the middle Atlantic. Why the crew abandoned her remains a mystery to this day but doesn't stop endless speculation and conjecture.

Unbelievable Mysteries - We know what happened, and how and why, but it just seems so improbable that it is still difficult to comprehend. The existence and evolution of dinosaurs or the building of the pyramids falls into this category.

Unresolved Mysteries - These are mysteries where we know what happened and we are likely one day to know why it happened but for now we remain in ignorance. Between my youth and that of my children there are a good number of these mysteries that have been wrapped up. For example, the disappearance of the CSS Hunley, after its first successful attack as a submarine, was a mystery when I was a child. In the past twenty years, not only has the wreck of the Hunley been found but it has been retrieved, restored and we now have a pretty good idea of what happened after the attack. Incidentally, this is an instance where there is actually a really good picture book version of this story for younger children, The Story Of The H.L. Hunley And Queenie's Coin by Fran Hawk and illustrated by Dan Nance.

• Finally, there are Wildly Speculative Mysteries - These are stories about events that are uncertain as to whether they even happened or not and if they did why they happened. The chief characteristic of these type of books are that they take a few indisputable facts out of context, add in a large measure of blind speculation and then serve it up as if the proposed hypothesis actually had any correlation to reality. The prime examples of this might be the various writings of Erich von Daniken in such books as Chariots of the Gods. They unfortunately are often prevalent in books for young children.

So what are some of the topics that children become fascinated with and want to learn more about? Listed below are some reasonably common topical areas of mystery, some of which we were gripped by as children, or by which we have seen our own children and those of others become fascinated:

What happened to the Mary Celeste?

Why and how did the Egyptians build pyramids?

Is there really a Bermuda Triangle?

What happened to the CSS Hunley?

How could Cortez have defeated the Aztecs?

Where did the jungle city of Angkor Wat come from?

Was the RMS Lusitania really sunk by a submarine?

How come World War I started?

How were the pyramids in the Americas related to the Egyptian pyramids?

Who was Tutankhamun?

Who were the Mongols, where did they come from and what happened to them?

Why did Roman Empire fall?

What were the seven wonders of the ancient world and what happened to them?

How did writing arise?

Did Troy really exist?

Did Atlantis exist?

What happened to the Anasazi in the American Southwest?

Who built Stonehenge and why?

Where did modern man come from?

Why did the Titanic sink?

Did the enemy soldiers really celebrate Christmas day together in WWI?

Did the Vikings make it to North America?

What was the Antikythera mechanism and did the Greeks invent a computer?

What was the Chinese Fleet and did it really sail the Indian Ocean?

Who was Prester John and did he really exist?

Who first reached/discovered America?

Is it really Noah's Ark on Mt. Arat?

Who built Stonehinge and why?

Did King Arthur really exist?

What happened to the Neanderthals?

Who or what was the Kennewick Man?

Who was Iceman and how did he die?

What were the Dead Sea Scrolls?

What was the purpose of the Tomb of China's First Emperor?

Who built the stone city of Zimbabwe?

What happened to the Lost Legions of Rome?

What were the Nazca Lines for?

It is a little hard to describe what type of books we are looking for here; they have the characteristics of Justice Potters definition of pornography, "I know it when I see it." These are stories where you want to know what happened and why it happened. And once you know, your response is "That's amazing." There is certainly an element of having learned something but more often than not there are elements of adventure, awe, inspiration and wonder. Even when you do have the answers to the who's, the what's, and the when's, you are still left with a sense of amazement.

What historical mysteries captured your reading as a child?

The Story Of The H.L. Hunley And Queenie's Coin by Fran Hawk and illustrated by Dan Nance Recommended

Adventures of the Treasure Fleet by Ann Bowler and illustrated by Lak-khee Tay-audouard Suggested

The Seventy Great Mysteries of the Ancient World by Brian M. Fagan Recommended

The Seventy Great Inventions Of The Ancient World by Brian M. Fagan Suggested

The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World by Christopher Scarre Recommended

Hour of the Olympics by Mary Pope Osborne and illustrated by Sal Murdocca Suggested

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl Highly Recommended

The Mary Celeste by Jane Yolen and Heidi Elisabet Yolen Stemple and illustrated by Roger Roth Recommended

Pyramid by David MacAulay Recommendation

The Lost World of the Anasazi by Peter Lourie Suggested

A Night To Remember by Walter Lord Highly Recommended

A Time to Stand by Walter Lord Recommended

Incredible Victory by Walter Lord Recommended

Vinland Sagas by Magnus Magnusson Suggested

When China Ruled the Seas by Louis Levathes Suggested

The Devil's Horsemen by James Chambers Highly Recommended

Ghost Ship by Brian Hicks Suggested

Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade Highly Recommended

Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub Suggested

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