Book review: "How They Croaked"

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

From Nancy Gilson, arts editor of The Columbus Dispatch, comes another of her great reviews of great books for kids! How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous (Walker, 184 pages, $17.99, age 10 and older) by Georgia Bragg, illustrated by Kevin O'Malley

The great equalizer takes center stage in Georgia Bragg's funny and informative How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous.

Bragg revels in the often-unsavory final days of 19 world leaders, artists, thinkers and celebrities -- from King Tut to Albert Einstein.

Each cheeky chapter -- devoted to one of the departed -- also provides a brief and entertaining biography.

Marie Antoinette's final days in prison and at the guillotine are recounted in detail. Her last words -- spoken to her executioner, whose toe she accidentally stepped on -- were "I did not do it on purpose." While gravediggers ate their lunch, her body was tossed on the grass, "giving Madame Tussaud (the famous wax sculptor) time to mold her face in wax before she was put in the ground."

The post-mortems on Albert Einstein and King Tut are particularly graphic.

Pathologist Thomas Harvey, thrilled at his chance to examine the corpse of the great genius, cut out Einstein's brain and weighed it (a surprisingly average 2.7 pounds), and kept it in a jar of formaldehyde.

And that was just the beginning of what he did with Einstein's noodle, Bragg writes.

King Tut's mummification is dissected, too -- including the extraction of his brain with a long, hooked bronze needle shoved up his nose.

Julius Caesar's murder by stabbing, King Henry VIII's pulmonary embolism, Edgar Allan Poe's death (of alcohol poisoning, rabies or something else?) and Marie Curie's radium poisoning are each explained and illustrated by Kevin O'Malley's sly, cartoonlike black-and-white drawings.

Bragg writes in an irreverent style: "Caesar went to Egypt to take over the place, but he met Cleopatra and his plans changed. He kind of liked her, and he really liked her gold. They had a son together. They called him Little Caesar, just like the pizza restaurant."

Chapter titles are equally smart-alecky: Henry VIII: Who Not To Marry; Marie Curie: You Glow, Girl; and Napoleon Bonaparte: I Hate Islands.

The nonstop humor should keep readers engaged.

Bragg's last words encourage youngsters to find and live out their passions, just as her subjects did.

"Don't let anyone talk you out of it. Because, guess what? Eventually, everybody's story ends."