Wicked History Series: Henry VIII, Leopold II, and Rasputin

A Wicked History: A nonfiction book about a historical figure who was, well, wicked!

Nonfiction series for the middle school age-range vary quite a bit in their usefulness (i.e. for “school”), their narrative excellence (or lack thereof), and their accuracy. The Wicked History series offers a lively, interesting, and well-researched option for learning about the villains of history (and quite a bit about that villain’s time period, country, and more in the process!). After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good villain?

The Wicked History books are each written by different authors (thus, the writing quality varies), but each follows the same format. The book opens with a map representing the subject’s “world,” including key events and locations. A table of contents comes next followed by a “wicked web” which highlights key people related to the subject. These people include family members (spouse, children, certain relatives), important world figures, and people opposing the villain. Next is a brief prose explanation of the world of the villain, providing helpful context for the story that follows.

Throughout the text (broken up into several larger “parts” and subdivided into short chapters), illustrations and sidebars offer helpful additional context. All illustrations are taken from primary sources and are cited in the back of the book. An additional section contains only images and corresponding captions. Back matter includes the author’s most helpful resources, a child-friendly bibliography with books and websites for further exploration, a glossary, a “Timeline of Terror,” and an index. Also included in the back matter is a short section asking the question “Was this person really wicked?” along with possible points to consider. And yet, even with this many additional resources, these small hardback books are surprisingly succinct and compact.

A Wicked History: Henry VIII: Royal Beheader by Sean Stewart Price

(Franklin Watts, 2009; 128 pages)

Henry VIII is a notorious figure in British history. Many memorize the catchy saying “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived” to keep his wives straight. After all, his biggest claim to fame is the way he treated his various wives and the manner in which that affected the course of the Protestant church in England. The Wicked History covers both of those elements thoroughly and fairly. Henry VIII’s various wives are each discussed in detail as are such figures as Sir Thomas More. This is a great addition to a general study of the time period. Of note: because of the nature of Henry’s romantic life, there are plenty of references to “affairs” and the like, but no details or descriptions are provided. There is one startling image of Thomas More getting beheaded; it’s small and black and white, but sensitive readers may still be disturbed.

A Wicked History: Leopold II: Butcher of the Congo by Tod Olson

(Franklin Watts, 2008; 128 pages)

Leopold II will be far less familiar to most readers (particularly those of the target age) than is Henry VIII. His influence on African history and colonialism, however, is hard to overstate. In an era when European powers were seeking to expand their land holdings, particularly in Africa, Leopold set out to buy himself a colony. He paid close attention to David Livingstone and the explorers who set out in Africa after Dr. Livingstone. Eventually, Leopold managed to purchase the Congo, an enormous parcel of land right in the middle of Africa.

Of course, that “purchase” was dubious since the Africans marking their “x” on papers they couldn’t read in return for bolts of cloth left much to be desired in the sense of fair treatment. What followed was barbaric treatment of the local Africans, a growing purse for Leopold, and a giant coverup operation. I appreciated that this book also mentions the slavery going on in the Middle East, that Africans were also buying/selling slaves, and the placement of this tragic story in its larger context. Books like this will do much to educate contemporary readers about part of Africa’s history as well as explain part of the ongoing conflict in some regions of Africa.

A Wicked History: Grigory Rasputin: Holy Man or Monk? by Enid A. Goldberg and Norman Itzkowitz.

(Franklin Watts, 2007; 128 pages)

Right away, I noticed that the writing quality of this volume wasn’t quite as good as the previous two. Chapters and sentences, both, are quite short and predictable. But Rasputin as a biography subject is anything but predictable. Like Henry VIII, much of Rasputin’s notoriety stems from his relationships with women. The book handles this matter of factly and does not go into detail (i.e. he is reported to “seduce women” or come out of a bathhouse with a woman, but the details stop there). Rasputin’s passionate claim to be a man of God combined with his lifestyle and the strange fascination his followers had with him makes for an interesting study. This volume would make for a relevant read in a world religions/cults class just as much as it would alongside a course on modern history. And for those studying modern world history, particularly the early 20th century, The Family Romanov would be a great companion read to this volume on Rasputin; after all, he was a close friend of theirs!

But Wait … There’s More!

I have only read the three books reviewed here, but there are quite a few more intriguing titles in the series. Catherine the Great, Alexander the Great, King George III, Vlad the Impaler, Napoleon, and more are listed on amazon; unfortunately, my library doesn’t have the entire series. As mentioned earlier, writing quality is uneven given that titles are written by a variety of authors. But this series looks promising overall and would make a great addition to a school or public library. One or two select volumes might be a good addition to a history class studying a particular time period (homeschool or traditional). Many are available used since the series has been out for quite a few years. The age range most likely to enjoy these are 10-13 year olds, or middle school.

Have you read any of the Wicked History books? What did you think?

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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