Inspired by some childhood favourites I received for Christmas, lately I’ve been looking into non-fiction archaeology books aimed at younger readers. I grew up reading the Usborne Time Traveller series which includes titles such as Pyramids and Pharaohs and Rome and Romans. A well-thumbed copy of Knights and Castles was loo-side reading for years. The series is still available, and was revised and reissued in the 1990s.
The archaeologist and author Mary Chubb is known (in archaeological circles at least) for her memoirs Nefertiti Lived Here and City in the Sand, recounting her experiences on archaeological excavations. But between 1966 and 1973 she also published a series for children, the Alphabet books. In each book she explains facets of archaeology and ancient history through a single word or concept, in alphabetical order. As she put it
…an Alphabet makes a good, strong base to build on.”
...people who spend their lives finding out how men lived long ago."
My personal favourite in An Alphabet of Ancient Egypt is X for X-Ray, in which Chubb describes the use of modern technology for understanding ancient lives. Watts's image of a radiographer x-raying a mummy accompanies the text. Its haunting caption:
Knowledge from Shadows"
Mary Chubb died just over a decade ago in 2003. While Libri reissued Nefertiti and City as paperbacks in the 1990s, the Alphabets have never been republished. A shame, but perhaps potentially an opportunity for some enterprising publisher? Let’s hope so, the books are brilliant.*
Allen, T. with Henry V. 1990. The Time Traveller Book of Pharaohs and Pyramids. London: Usborne Publishing Limited.
Amery, H. and Vanags, P. 1989. The Time Traveller Book of Rome and Romans. London: Usborne Publishing Limited.
Chubb, M. 1954. Nefertiti Lived Here. London: Geoffrey Bles.
Chubb, M. 1966. An Alphabet of Ancient Egypt. London: Geoffrey Bles.
Chubb, M. 1957 . City in the Sand. London: Libri Publications Limited.
With thanks to Carl Graves (Egypt Exploration Society).
*On a related note, I’ve been watching David Walliams host a Channel 4 feature on the top 50 children’s books, highlighting a recent Times list of the top 100. There are some great authors featured: Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Enid Blyton (though I’d have gone for the Adventure series myself). Some others, disappointingly, weren’t part of the top 50, including Noel Streatfeild with Ballet Shoes (No. 75), and Elizabeth Goudge with The Little White Horse (No. 60).
In returning to the Usborne Time Traveller books I found an unexpected link to Noel Streatfeild, whose Shoes books I read voraciously. A very short list of further reading at the end of Pyramids included her non-fiction book The Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, published by Michael Joseph in 1972, the same year as the famous exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun opened at the British Museum.