How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg and Kevin O'Malley
How They Croaked begins with a clear warning: "If you don't have the guts for gore, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK." They are not kidding.
American icon Billy Joel once sang, "Only the good die young," but before modern medicine, almost everyone died young. The only difference was whether it was quick or slow and gruesome. Infections, malaria, gout, and tuberculosis were pretty common ways to go. King Tut, Christopher Columbus, Pocahontas, and Edgar Allan Poe were victims of such illnesses.
Queen Elizabeth and Galileo Galilei lived twice as long as their contemporaries, but they got it in the end just the same.
The other surefire way to go was by another's hand. Author Georgia Bragg includes juicy details of Julius Caesar's murder and Marie Antoinette's—who got a real bad rap—execution.
Many people met their demises at the hands of doctors, whose remedies were mere guesswork. George Washington was basically bled to death. Beethoven suffered for days while doctors turned him into a hideous science experiment. And Albert Einstein? He made it to old age, but it sure is pretty insulting when someone steals your brain after you die.
Kevin O'Malley's illustrations pair with Bragg's gift for language to create what can truly and appropriately be described as "gallows humor." O'Malley's pictures are cartoony, grotesque versions of each person that highlight his or her demise. Marie Curie's fingertips really did start to blacken after decades of exposure to radiation, and her picture certainly shows it.
Why am I raving about a book that tells you how famous people in history met their ends? Well, "funny" and "gross" are two of the biggest characteristics that reluctant readers, especially boys, look for when they do take the time to read.
Understandably, there is a bit of a stigma against books dealing with bodily function, which How They Croaked certainly does. Still, it also manages to combine history and science with humor and gore in a way that many reluctant readers will connect to.
If this book was published when I was in middle school, I would have checked it out over and over, memorized my favorite parts, and grossed out my big sister with the gruesome facts within. Most importantly, I would have learned a lot and sought out more books like this one.
Speaking of which, there are two great non-fiction series to pair with How They Croaked.
A Wicked History chronicles the lives of nasty historical figures such as Vlad the Impaler, Rasputin, and Adolf Hitler. These relatively short biographies would make for a great school project about some downright terrible people.
The You Wouldn't Want To... series approaches significant points throughout civilization, then explains to you just why you might not want to time travel there. The sorts of diseases and medical ignorance displayed in How They Croaked is just one of the factors. The series goes in-depth, too. Assyrian Soldiers, Mayan Soothsayers, and Pony Express Riders are just some of the things you wouldn't want to be.
How They Croaked concludes with a positive affirmation that even though all of these historical people had nasty endings, it is often what they accomplished in life that made them important. Under all of those guts and gore, How They Croaked truly has a heart of gold.