The Secrets of Stonehenge is a collaboration by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom, two of the finest creators of children’s nonfiction books. Their contribution has been recognised by a string of awards including five Royal Society Junior Science Book awards and five English Association Nonfiction awards. It’s quite a record, and a testament to the sustained quality of their work since the publication of their first book The World is Full of Babies, which won the Smarties Prize in 1996. What characterises their work is the balance between respect for the subjects they write about and an understanding of what young readers need to help them navigate quite complex subjects. Their books have a lightness of touch, recognising that nonfiction has to appeal to children at an emotional level as well as informing them about a topic.
This title is a fine example of the duo’s nonfiction oeuvre. It tells the story of Stone Age Britain from around 10,000 years ago to approximately 4,000 years ago, focusing as the title indicates on the construction of Stonehenge. Each double-page spread features a topic including Gods and Goddesses, The Aubrey Holes, The Bluestones Arrive, The Lintel Stones etc.
The layout on each page consists of a large watercolour illustration which carries the main narrative. As you can see in this example below a cast of characters are busy erecting the lintel stones. The method is shown in the illustration and accompanying dialogue provides some explanation ‘Just a little higher.’ One man tells his partner. The dialogue adds some humour to the scene which is bound to be appreciated by the children ‘Can’t hang around here all day!’ says one man clinging to a rope as he tries to hoist the heavy stone. A paragraph of explanatory text accompanies the illustration. Additional text on sepia inserts adds technical detail.
One of the strengths of the writing is the acknowledgement that there is a lot that we can conjecture, but we don’t know the answers for sure. ‘We don’t know how long it took them but we do know that the bluestones were set up in a double row in the centre of the site.’ It’s great to see sources acknowledged in the book. The page about Gods and Goddesses refers to 5,000-year-old clay figure from Malta and a Sun Wagon from Trundholm in Denmark. Some of the references to experts are generalised ‘Many experts believe they solved it step-by-step’. Although the experts are not named, this puts across the point that knowledge in subjects is developed by a group of people called ‘experts.’ In enquiry based learning, children can be encouraged, through modelling to ask, ‘well who are these experts, and how do they know?’ On that point, I would have liked some references at the back as a starting point to explore with children. This would further reinforce the idea that nonfiction writers have sources and hopefully would show that internet searching is not the only source for research. Children in lower juniors can begin to work with this idea.
There was one element about Stonehenge that I questioned; the illustrations tend to show a stereotypical division of labour. This is not uncommon in books about the stone age. The R J Unstead book that I had at school described how the cavemen went hunting and his ‘wife’ scraped furs to make clothes. While we may not know precisely how labour was allocated, there is some archaeological evidence from the middle palaeolithic period in Eurasia that indicates work was equally divided by men and women. Given that there is still much that isn’t known, this too could be an interesting enquiry question.
A handy glossary with carefully selected words and timeline are included at the back of the book.
In the classroom, The Secrets of Stonehenge is an engaging book to use for a Stone Age topic, providing the opportunity for different types of reading, including disciplinary approaches. It features as a new addition to our Take One Book selection for year 3 for the academic year 2020/21 takeonebook.org
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