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Few subjects have such intrinsic fascination to middle-grade kids (and everyone else, really) as the concept of death and the particulars of how humans deal with it.
The ancient Greeks laid coins on the eyes of their dead as a toll for the ferryman of the underworld, guaranteeing their loved one safe passage. Some Tibetan Buddhists still symbolize the soul’s flight from the body through sky burial, a process in which the body is carved into small pieces and scattered on a mountainside to be taken by the elements. And the pharaohs of ancient Egypt took with them into the tomb what they could not bear to lose.
These days, mummies and skeletons, for many, are fare for Halloween and horror movies. But an everyday interest in things macabre also lingers. Those same mummies, skeletons, and cemeteries populate the pages of children’s literature year-round, enthralling young readers with lurid photographs and stories of adventurous archaeologists. Those of us who watched LeVar Burton in Reading Rainbow may remember with clarity the episode that featured Aliki’s Mummies Made in Egypt (1985); both book and episode, in almost painstaking detail, dealt with the embalming and mummification process. For many young readers (and viewers), this was one of the first introductions to the science and beliefs that lay behind things meant to scare us on Halloween.
Humankind has always had an enduring, often obsessive fascination with death—this is nothing new. Every culture in the world has a different way of mourning, celebrating, and memorializing their dead. From excarnation practices to the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, people around the globe protect and remember both their recent and ancestral dead. Therefore, the process of learning to understand and cope with death starts young.
From an educational perspective, death is a gateway. It provides insight into science: archaeological digs, environmental factors that lead to mummification, forensics, and funerary arts are all discussed in the books below. It’s a window into history as well: bodies preserved in peat bogs and glaciers allow for a look into life thousands of years ago, as do artifacts buried with the dead. Lastly, the potential for discussion about various cultures is unmatched: from Incan human sacrifice to José Guadalupe Posada’s satirical calavera cartoons to differing beliefs about the afterlife, both ancient and modern cultures have approached death in ways that range from grim to playful.
In the classroom, the topic is a surefire hit. Many of these books feature full-page, full-color paragraphs of uncovered mummies or petrified corpses. One look is sure to elicit a chorus of squeals—for some kids, the grosser the better. The following lists provide suggested titles for young readers that deal with the various aspects of death without sensationalizing, opening that window into numerous sides of humanity around the globe.
Corpses by Culture
Bodies from the Bog. By James M. Deem. illus. 1998. HMH, $16 (9780395857847). Gr. 5–7.
In 1952, the body of a man was discovered in a peat bog. Though originally believed to be a relatively recent accident victim, the body was eventually discovered to be a 2,000-year-old sacrifice. This detailed account, complete with mesmerizing photos of artifacts, scientific procedures, and the mummies themselves, explores the preservative makeup of bogs and the information bog bodies reveal about early Europeans.
Bog Bodies. By Janet Buell. illus. 1997. Lerner/Twenty-First Century, $16.98 (9780805051643). Gr. 3–8.
Beginning with the 1984 discovery of the body now known as the Lindow Man in a peat bog in England, this installation in the Time Travelers series examines the anthropological information about ancient Celtic cultures gleaned by bog mummies. The preservation of the bodies in the bogs allows for a greater understanding of human existence 2,000 years ago; the text includes a discussion of the theory that the Lindow Man and many of the other bog bodies were meant as sacrifices to pagan gods. A companion volume, Ice Maiden of the Andes (1997), deals with a corpse mummified by ice, and is included below.
Bury the Dead: Tombs, Corpses, Mummies, Skeletons, & Rituals. By Christopher Sloan. illus. 2002. National Geographic, $18.95 (9780792271925). Gr. 5–9.
This sleek, macabre volume goes big, examining the burial and funeral rites of cultures across the globe. From the mummies and pyramids of the ancient Egyptians and the terra-cotta soldiers of the Chinese Qin dynasty to the rituals of the Amazon’s Yanomami people, this discusses both how and why different cultures bury and respect their dead. Full-page photographs from the National Geographic Society’s archives add to the appeal.
The Day of the Dead / El día de los muertos. By Bob Barner. Illus. by the author. Trans. by Teresa Mlawer. 2010. Holiday, $16.95 (9780823422142). PreS–Gr. 1.
This picture-book introduction to the Latin American Day of the Dead runs English and Spanish versions of the text side by side. The story follows two children through their preparations for the holiday, vibrantly illustrating the process through which families guide their deceased loved ones home. Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada inspired author-artist Barner’s collages, which depict the bright holiday with familiar dancing skeletons.
Dying to Know . . . About Death, Funeral Customs, and Final Resting Places. By Lila Perl. illus. 2001. Lerner/Twenty-First Century, $25.90 (9780761315643). Gr. 5–7.
Employing humor as well as fact, this guide to the afterlife elaborates on both cultural and religious traditions among prehistoric people and modern ones. The hows (mummification, embalming) and the whys (religious and social lore) are discussed, as are the semantics of decay (what happens to corpses in coffins versus the process of cremation).
Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras. By Duncan Tonatiuh. Illus. by the author. 2015. Abrams, $18.95 (9781419716478). Gr. 3–5.
This picture-book biography of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada looks at the cultural and artistic impact of calaveras, the skeletons often found in Day of the Dead celebrations. Posada drew inspiration from the sugar skulls and other objects used in Día de los muertos celebrations, going on to create, through various artistic techniques, the grinning, playful calaveras that are now emblematic of the holiday. He also often repurposed the skeletons in satirical political cartoons, extending their influence beyond just the religious.
Ice Maiden of the Andes. By Janet Buell. illus. 1997. Lerner/Twenty-First Century, $16.98 (9780805051858). Gr. 5–8.
Like its companion volume, Bog Bodies (1997), this deals with the discovery of a preserved body—this time, the frozen mummy of a young girl in the Andes. Unlike the Lindow Man discovered in Bog Bodies, there is no doubt that here the girl discovered was, in fact, a human sacrifice. The body provided context for Incan culture and rituals, while the book itself—especially when paired with Bog Bodies—gives insight into the hows and whys of human sacrifice.
Mummies and Their Mysteries. By Charlotte Wilcox. illus. 1993. Carolrhoda, $22.95 (9780876147672). Gr. 5–7.
Bringing the topic of mummies a step beyond the famous Egyptian ones, this takes a narrative approach to the discussion of body preservation. From Peru to the Far East, and including the Arctic, Western Europe, and, yes, Egypt, Wilcox examines how various people (and environmental phenomenon) throughout the ages have worked to preserve and mummify the bodies of the dead as well as what this reveals about each culture. Crisp color photographs add an extra layer of information—and morbidity.
At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui. By Christine Liu-Perkins. Illus. by Sarah S. Brannen. 2014. Charlesbridge, $19.95 (9781580893701). Gr. 4–7.
The 1971 excavation of an ancient Chinese tomb led to a startling discovery: the 2,000-year-old body of a Chinese noblewoman, so well preserved that her skin was still soft. An autopsy, along with examination of the artifacts that accompanied her in her tomb, allowed archaeologists to discover much about the early Han dynasty. Original art, combined with photos of Lady Dai and her relics, makes this a highly visual work as well as an informative one.
Bones Never Lie: How Forensics Helps Solve History’s Mysteries. By Elizabeth MacLeod. illus. 2013. Annick, $24.95 (9781554514830). Gr. 5–8.
The trail may be cold, but progress marches on: MacLeod examines seven historical mysteries through the lens of modern CSI techniques. From the questionable survival of Russia’s Grand Duchess Anastasia to the deaths of Egypt’s King Tut and Thailand’s King Rama VIII, MacLeod uses forensic science to reach some kind of verdict in each case, effectively blending science and history.
How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous. By Georgia Bragg. Illus. by Kevin O’Malley. 2011. Walker, $17.99 (9780802798176). Gr. 5–8.
In pages positively brimming with gusto, Bragg collects some of the odder and ghastlier deaths of famous people throughout history. From a thorough description of King Tut’s mummification to Henry VIII’s postmortem disturbance (“It is believed that his toxic remains exploded, and some of his royal splendidness dripped out the sides of the coffin overnight”), this is a humorous—and disgusting—exploration of the deaths (and more) of some of history’s A-list.
The Iceman. By Don Lessem. illus. 1994. Crown, $14 (9780517595961). Gr. 4–7.
The 1991 discovery of a 5,300-year-old man frozen in ice led to the uncovering of new knowledge about Copper Age Europe. The text elaborates on the mummy, his clothes and tools, and the scientific methods used to glean information from the corpse and his objects. Photographs of the body and artifacts are combined with imagined illustrations of how the Iceman may have appeared when alive.
Mysterious Bones: The Story of Kennewick Man. By Katherine Kirkpatrick. Illus. by Emma Stevenson. 2011. Holiday, $17.95 (9780823421879). Gr. 7–10.
A college student discovered a human skull in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996, and the nearly complete skeleton was unearthed and determined to be 9,500 years old. Since Native American remains are protected by law and turned over to an appropriate tribe for burial, a legal battle ensued over whether the bones could be studied further. Kirkpatrick traces the work of anthropologists, explains the court cases, and explores Kennewick Man’s possible culture in this thoroughly researched book.
Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground. By Joyce Hansen and Gary McGowan. 1998. Holt, o.p. Gr. 8–12.
The monumental 1991 discovery of the mid-eighteenth-century African Burial Ground under the streets of Manhattan has uncovered the skeletal remains and artifacts of more than 400 graves as well as the history of the enslaved people whose voices had been lost. McGowan, head conservator of the team studying the burial ground, and Hansen, a Coretta Scott King Award winner, weave together the main strands of the inquiry. Archaeologists, physical anthropologists, and historians painstakingly analyze the discovery, providing much insight into the lives and culture of these slaves.
The Emperor’s Silent Army: Terracotta Warriors of Ancient China. By Jane O’Connor. illus. 2002. Viking, $17.99 (9780670035120). Gr. 4–7.
The unearthing of a buried statue in 1974 northern China led to the discovery of the terra-cotta soldiers, stone warriors created to guard the first emperor of China in his afterlife. This volume goes into the details of that discovery as well as the will of the emperor and the detailed creation of the soldiers. A useful introduction to an early burial practice.
Forgotten Bones: Uncovering a Slave Cemetery. By Lois Miner Huey. illus. 2015. Lerner/Millbrook, $30.65 (9781467733939). Gr. 5–8.
Workers stumbled upon a human skull buried in an upstate New York construction site. Eventually, archaeologists unearthed 13 skeletons, and the plot itself was eventually determined to be an eighteenth-century slave cemetery. This account details investigation of the remains, and several of the scientific methods used in that investigation, as well as the daily life of those slaves and cultural implications of the evidence of slavery so far north.
Mummy Cat. By Marcus Ewert. Illus. by Lisa Brown. 2015. Clarion, $16.99 (9780544340824). K–Gr. 3.
A mummified cat inside an Egyptian pyramid wakes up once a century to see if the queen, his friend from life, has woken up as well. Through detailed, Egyptian-inspired illustrations, he travels the tomb and past all the wonders it contains, searching. Combined with an author’s note on Egyptian culture and the process of mummification, this picture book is an accessible—and heartwarming—introduction to Egyptian burial practices for younger readers.
Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. Gareth Stevens, $26.60 (9781482414875). Gr. 3–5.
Arguably the most impressive offering in the Digging Up the Dead series, this deals with the various, sometimes incredible ways in which we house our dead. Examples include the “bone chandelier” in the Czech Republic’s Sedlec Ossuary and Iran’s Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. An intriguing, occasionally chilling look at the way we often use bodies to honor bodies.
Unwrapping the Mummy: Archaeological Digs and Anthropological Discoveries
Archaeologists! By Clifford Thompson. illus. 2015. Mason Crest, $20.95 (9781422234174). Gr. 5–8.
This installment in the Scientists in Action! series explores the work done by anthropologists and researchers on archaeological digs and elaborates on the tools needed for the trade. Sections on major historical discoveries add excitement, while others on how to prepare for a career in the field of archaeology could be helpful and encouraging to younger readers interested in taking an exciting path into the sciences.
Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past. By James M. Deem. illus. 2008. HMH, $17 (9780618800452). Gr. 4–7.
With glaciers across the world slowly melting, scientists are discovering more and more frozen bodies in the ice. Like the Iceman, most of these bodies are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old, and their discoveries have provided much insight into the history of various communities. This particular volume on mummified corpses deals with the science of glaciers as well as stories of scientists and explorers who have traveled the glaciers—and often discovered bodies from the past.
The Bone Detectives: How Forensic Anthropologists Solve Crimes and Uncover Mysteries of the Dead. By Donna M. Jackson. 1996. Little, Brown, o.p. Gr. 5–7.
Jackson follows forensic anthropologist Dr. Michael Charney and his colleagues as they solve an actual case by developing a physical profile from bones and teeth, reconstructing the victim’s skull, and using clues from fibers and other material to make further identification. Once the skull was reconstructed, police sent out mug shots, which eventually led to an identification—and a murderer. A useful, enthralling work.
Buttons, Bones, and the Organ Grinder’s Monkey: Tales of Historical Archaeology. By Meg Greene. 2001. Shoe String/Linnet, o.p. Gr. 5–8.
In this intriguing introduction to historical archaeology, Greene spotlights five sites of recent investigation: the Jamestown Fort, the sunken seventeenth-century ship La Belle, the slave quarters at Jefferson’s Monticello, the Montana battlefield of Little Bighorn, and the Five Points neighborhood in New York City, a notorious slum in the mid-1800s. The diversity of sites and their particular challenges and stories provide interesting reading and a good picture of the archaeological approach to history.
So You Want to Work with the Ancient and Recent Dead? Unearthing Careers from Paleontology to Forensic Science. By J. M. Bedell. 2015. Aladdin/Beyond Words, $19.99 (9781582705460). Gr. 3–7.
The latest in the Be What You Want series advises young readers on how to prepare for a career around all things dead. From forensic science to archaeology to the funerary arts, this covers just about everything under the sun (and below the ground). There are some surprising additions (playing a zombie on TV and working in a slaughterhouse!), but interviews with professionals in the various careers add credibility, and suggested activities make this guide hands-on.
Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland. By Sally M. Walker. illus. 2009. Carolrhoda, $22.95 (9780822571353). Gr. 7–11.
This unusual volume dips into American history to introduce the work of forensic anthropologists, providing detailed discussions and intriguing close-up views of the grave excavations at Jamestown, Virginia. Walker describes the meticulous work of the archaeologists and other scientists who study skeletal remains, and discusses how forensic anthropology has contributed to historians’ understanding of colonial times. A relatively high reading level, but fascinating and useful for those intrigued by forensics and history.
The titles included here will engage students and encourage them to learn more about the histories and sciences of many cultures. The following are suggested activities that implement the Common Core Standards. You can find out more about the Common Core State Standards at www.corestandards.com.
In the Classroom: Read Mummy Cat to the class. Follow up the reading by informing students that book publishers will sometimes create an author and illustrator promotional video that will provide a behind the scenes look at the making of the book, and show the video featuring Marcus Ewert and Lisa Brown, the author and illustrator of Mummy Cat.
After students see the video, take time for questions and comments. Remind the class that the illustrator Lisa Brown cryptically said, “There are things in the art that are not in the text . . . There’s an extra story in the art that you can only see through the art.” Explain to the class that they are going to reread the book, but this time around pay careful attention to a particular character, Hatshepsut’s sister. After the second reading, ask the class to share what they noticed about this character’s actions and reflect on her possible feelings throughout the book. As a writing assignment, challenge the students to write three diary entries from Hatshepsut’s sister’s point of view, using the illustrations to support their text. Pair the students off to share their diary entries with each other.
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.6. Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.7. Make connections between the text of a story or drama and a visual or oral presentation of the text, identifying where each version reflects specific descriptions and directions in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.9. Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.4.2. Paraphrase portions of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.4.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
In the Classroom: In advance of reading The Emperor’s Silent Army, take time to introduce new vocabulary words included in the text that may be unfamiliar to the students: archaeologist, anonymous, archer, barbarian, boasted, bronze, cavalry, chariot, crossbow, currency, decaying, despised, dignified, drought, elaborate, embroider, excavate, fortification, ignorant, immortal, infantry, intruder, jade, kiln, loot, massacre, mercury, notion, outpost, pheasant, ransack, replica, revolt, strategically, superstitious, temperament, trench, trudge, tyrant, tunic, vanguard, and veteran.
Assign a word(s) from this list to each student. Pass out a 9-by-12 piece of white construction paper, folded in half so that it resembles a greeting card. On the cover of the card the student should write the vocabulary word in large letters for the class to see. Open the card. On the left-hand side of the card, the student should write the definition of the word. On the right-hand side of the card the child should draw or print out an illustration of the word’s meaning. Turn the page over to the back of the card. The student should write a sentence that includes the vocabulary word. Once the vocabulary cards are finished each child should, one by one, introduce the card to the class. The cards can be turned into an interactive bulletin board if they are posted on a bulletin board in the classroom.
As an extension of this activity, the teacher can type the words and definitions into the Read Write and Think crossword to create a crossword. Print it out and have the children solve the crossword in pairs. The bulletin board can be used as reference source.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.4. Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 5 topic or subject area.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.4.C. Consult reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation and determine or clarify the precise meaning of key words and phrases.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.4. Report on a topic or text or present an opinion, sequencing ideas logically and using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.
In the Classroom: Duncan Tonatiuh, author of Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, writes “For the holiday (Día de los muertos) Don Antonio and other editors published literary Calaveras. They were short rhyming poems that featured a skeleton and made jokes about him or her.” After reading the book to the class, explain to the students that they will be working in pairs to create a literary Calaveras. Reread “Calavera Love” from the book and then ask the children to comment on what they notice about this form of writing. Some answers might include, “The main characters are skeletons. Some of the words rhyme. There is a joke at the end.” Encouraging the students to brainstorm words associated with a skeleton may help them with word selection for their writing. Possible words that they might suggest could include: skull, skinny, bones, boney, rattle, dead, white, thin, scary, dry. Remind the students that there are rhyming words in the literary Calavera, so they might want to find words that rhyme with the words they brainstormed. Students might also want to ask themselves, “Where is my skeleton, what is my skeleton’s job? What is my skeleton’s problem?“ The final product should be printed and posted on a bulletin board.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.3.A. Choose words and phrases to convey ideas precisely.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.5. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
Maggie Reagan is a Books for Youth Associate Editor at Booklist.
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