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'A Wicked History: Alexander the Great,' by Doug Wilhelm 

The gory parts of Scholastic’s history-for-kids series (stabbings! beheadings!) also appeal to adults.

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There’s just something about a great villain, especially for boys. I know the dragon in Sleeping Beauty is way cooler than that sissy prince, but I’m mildly alarmed when my kids root for orcs over hobbits in Lord of the Rings. I guess it’s natural — even Scholastic gave in to the reality in 2007 and kicked off some cool new nonfiction for teens in its “Wicked History” series. The latest entry is about Alexander the Great, and the graffiti over his caricature on the cover reads “Relentless.”

Scholastic has recruited some notable writers to engage kids with the wicked truth about some of history’s most notorious names — Napoleon, Catherine the Great, Attila the Hun, Mary Tudor. I would have loved this stuff as a kid — heck, I’m reading every one after my 11-year-old is done with them.

The series uses maps, family trees, timelines, glossaries and lots of pictures to engage modern kids. And it’s no air-brushed history lite. In the Genghis Khan entry, one of the first anecdotes is about how one town hides its treasure of pearls by having the villagers swallow them — so then, to retrieve the loot, Khan’s gang slashed open some bellies. Yowza!

Yeah, history isn’t always pretty. But these books do spark the imagination. In the final chapter (always asking, “Wicked?”), each author shares his or her interpretations, which adds a dose of analysis missing from a lot of the history classes I remember. In the George III entry, Philip Brooks wonders whether the American Revolution would have happened if England’s king was less bull-headed. It’s an interesting what-if and proof that individuals do make history.

Not to sound too lowbrow, but I actually appreciate the brevity. In about 120 pages, I learned some new things about the Mad Macedonian and didn’t have to devote a couple weeks to the usual door-stopper I like to tackle.

Alexander’s audacious war-making — from Gaza to Persia, via siege towers and war chariots — reads like epic fantasy. Who says history is boring? 

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