Kid Canon

story of britain inside

Sometimes a new children’s book makes me say to myself, Man, I wish this had been out when I was a kid. And since I’ve always been a history fan—I’m the son of an ancient historian, so it seems to run in the family—Patrick Dillon’s The Story of Britain certainly had a head start at the honor. This handsome hardcover for historically inclined middle schoolers and up ambitiously takes its reader, as its subtitle says, “from the Norman conquest to the European Union.”

Children’s history is a tricky business, though, and most of the attempts I’ve seen fall into one of two traps. Either they hew too closely to the old-school “just the facts and dates” approach, resulting in dry, dull pages that even the most history-inclined kid would give up on, or they’re so concerned with amping up the action that they skip vital issues entirely—and end up being fairly useless as history.

Dillon neatly walks a path between those two poles, by containing every episode and subject in a short, digestible chapter of a mere page or two in length. With large subjects that would be difficult to sum up in that little space—World War II, say—he expands on his schema rather than deserting it, devoting several of his brief chapters to different aspects.

This pays off marvelously, making The Story of Britain doubly useful, as both a fast journey through the entirety of British history and an excellent quick reference on the individual subjects. (In that regard, it’s even handy for parents who might be looking for a speedy refresher on the Wars of the Roses or the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Hey, it could happen!) The format, and Dillon’s perfectly light touch as a writer, keep everything moving along nicely, while the many evocative watercolors by illustrator P. J. Lynch bring the people and topics he’s covering even more vividly to life.

The author is even brave enough to bring his book right up to the modern day, always a risky enterprise for any historian, since politics inevitably color any interpretation of recent events. Dillon chooses balance, presenting both sides of these often controversial arguments. This will tend to frustrate parents of just about any political bent, but does allow the author to avoid any serious accusations of attempted brainwashing of our youth, I suppose. (And to be fair, a child interested in learning more about the policies of Margaret Thatcher, say, will find no shortage of opinionated arguments at easy reach.)

Certainly, when covering so much time in fairly compact space, compromises must be made, and The Story of Britain makes no pretense of being an in-depth, comprehensive history. It’s more a point of first entry into serious history for children: Dillon wants to cultivate their interest and help it grow, rather than stomping on it as many a school textbook has done through the years. I may be a bit predisposed, but I’d say he’s succeeded marvelously, producing perhaps the best large-scale history book for kids since E. H. Gombrich’s 75-year old A Little History of the World. (And to be honest, I’ve never been entirely sure that book—while wonderful—is really for children!)

From You Know, For Kids


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