Grandpa sometimes jokes about the “good old days.”
Those were the days when he was your age and life was different. There were no cell phones, no computers, no iPods, no video games, and TVs weren’t thin enough to hang on a wall.
You can barely wrap your brain around it.
So imagine what life was like a thousand years ago. As with Grandpa’s “good old days,” you wouldn’t want to go back there – and in “Off with Their Heads!” by Martin Oliver, illustrated by Andrew Pinder, you’ll find out why.
For the first few thousand years that people lived in Britain , almost nothing was written down. Everything important was passed by word-of-mouth through stories and poems. You might guess that some information got lost.
Then along came the Romans.
About 2,000 years ago, the Romans started looking for new lands to conquer, and they suddenly noticed the lush grasses of a series of islands we now call Great Britain. For a few centuries after their arrival on British shores, there were wars and skirmishes, battles, sacks and death. The Romans did write things down, and they brought roads and new cities to the islands but, several times, they gained and lost what they tried to conquer until, in the year 409, they gave up and ended their rule of Britain.
For nearly 200 years, then, Britain was an unsafe place to be: many tribes fought to take control. Cities were vandalized and people were killed. The (sort-of) peaceful Anglo-Saxons were “the top dogs” by the 600s, but the Vikings came roaring ashore in 793 and stuck around for a couple of centuries, give or take.
Things kind of settled down about a thousand years ago. William the Conquerer built the Tower of London. Robert the Bruce had a little spat with William Wallace. The Black Death killed a third of the population of England in the mid-1300s and another 20 percent, 300 years later. The Crown was nearly constantly up for grabs. Henry VIII married again and again (eight in all), Victoria held the crown the longest (so far), and Queen Elizabeth II may soon hold that record.
And, says Oliver, “the new millennium has only just begun…”
I very much wanted to like “Off with Their Heads!” Its subtitle (“All the Cool Bits in British History”) promises so much lightheartedness — and fails to deliver.
Oliver does, indeed, include some “cool bits,” but I thought that the vast majority of this book was more like a textbook your child would read in school. Readers will find dates, royalty and battles in a semi-sequential timeline, but the occasional fun-to-know tidbit is thrown as a dry bone — and that’s no fun at all. Not even the mildly amusing illustrations by Pinder could save the dust from settling on the pages here.
I think this book will delight an 8- to 11-year-old who’s a die-hard history fan and who loves hard facts. Most kids who see “Off with Their Heads!” though, should just move on.
View publishes Terri Schlichenmeyer’s reviews of books for children and teens weekly.