The life of a Roman slave, circa AD 107, was no picnic.
Separated from their families, assigned to the hardest labor, often beaten and only occasionally able to dream of buying their freedom, slaves made up as much as one-third of the population. And many of them were children.
Young Iliona tells her story in Roman Diary (Candlewick, 64 pages, $18.99, age 8 and older), fourth in Richard Platt's historical fiction "Diary" series. The picture book is generous with details of ancient Roman life, revealed in the narrative and in David Parkins' abundant and colorful illustrations. Neither spare the grim details.
Iliona is traveling with her parents and brother from their home in Greece to Egypt when their ship is attacked by pirates. Her parents are killed and she and her brother are sold into slavery. Iliona, who can speak and write in Latin, fetches a good price and becomes the property of a wealthy and fair master and his young wife. Her brother, not so lucky, becomes a laborer at a farm where slaves are treated cruelly.
The narrator's candid style and her story's consistent drama recall another tale for young readers, the medieval-set Catherine Called Birdy. Iliona tells of emptying chamber pots, visiting the opulent Roman baths, attending gladiator games, witnessing the collapse of an apartment building and serving food and drink at a bacchanalian feast.
In a most entertaining way, readers will discover what life was like -- as Platt describes it -- throughout "six glorious and bloodthirsty centuries" during which the Romans created magnificent art, architecture and writing.
Also in the series: Castle Diary, Egyptian Diary and Pirate Diary.
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Other new and noteworthy historical books soon to be published for young readers:
- Mission Control, This is Apollo (Viking, 128 pages, $23.99 age 10 and older)L The 40th anniversary of the moon landing is celebrated and documented in a book rich with photographs and illustrations. Andrew Chaikin (A Man on the Moon) and Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean are the authors.
- Pharaoh's Boat (Houghton Mifflin, 32 pages, $18, ages 9 to 12): David Weitzman tells how the ancient Egyptians built an enormous boat for the Pharaoh and then, after an archaeological dig, how builders recreated it in the 20th century.
- The Time Book (Candlewick, 60 pages, $18.99, ages 9 to 12): Martin Jenkins waxes philosophically and factually about time -- what it is, how we started keeping track of it and why we measure it in such unusual ways -- to the accompaniment of Richard Holland's very cool collage illustrations.