Middle School Teacher in Rural Alaska

The Story of Mankind

on January 4, 2012

I was unsure of what to expect when I began Hendrik Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind. Some had suggested that it was dense and tough to get through. Others were questioning how it won the first ever Newberry Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature.

Although I began this book with some trepidation, it did not take long for me to begin to like the author. After explaining the evolution of life on earth Van Loon discussed how early humans discovered fire and cooking, “And then one evening a dead chicken fell into the fire. It was not rescued until it had been well roasted. Man discovered that meat tasted better when cooked and he then and there discarded one of the old habits which he had shared with the other animals and began to prepare his food.” I laughed out loud while I was reading this particular passage. The hilarity of this image means that this important fact of history becomes cemented into your brain as you picture the chicken just falling onto the fire.

Overall, I actually found that his writing was far from dry. In fact, I think he did an incredible job of inserting bits of humor into the book to keep the reader engaged. Another favorite passage of mine was, ““As everybody in Greece drank wine (the Greeks thought water only useful for the purpose of swimming and sailing) this particular Divinity [He’s referring to Dionysis here] was as popular as a God of the Soda-Fountain would be in our own land.” What a brilliant, and scarily accurate, metaphor! If I were to make a conjecture about why this book won the Newberry Award I would say that the author’s voice and humor are probably the main factor.

While the humor and the voice are certainly aimed at children, many seem to be questioning whether this is really a children’s book.  I’d like to argue that it is a children’s book. It is certainly a children’s book of 1922. And I will even go so far as to say that ambitious, historically inclined young-readers today would enjoy it. To understand why I think it was considered a top notch children’s book in 1922, you must understand that the way history is taught in schools has vastly changed. Now many of our schools focus Social Studies classes on Project-Based Learning and 21st Century skills. In the past, history classes were taught very differently. As an example of this, just look at an 1869 Harvard entrance exam. Examinees were expected to be able to, “Name the chief rivers of Ancient Gaul and Modern France. Is France larger or smaller than Transalpine Gaul? What are two principal rivers that rise in the Alps? Where is Mont Blanc?” While we can debate the value of this memorized knowledge, I want to point out that if you knew these things off the top of your head it would be much easier to read the sections in the book about the divisions of land between different European powers.  The background knowledge that children had in 1922 made this book more readable than it is today. Yet, I think students today who have had strong Ancient and World History classes would really get a kick out of this book. They would enjoy the way the author takes bits and pieces of history and melds them into one coherent story.

Overall, I actually enjoyed this book. Of course, I am a history teacher, so I’m a bit biased. I definitely think some parts were boring and I don’t think most kids today would like it, but I am definitely glad that I read it.


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