The Story of Mankind by Hendrik van Loon

  • Title: The Story of Mankind
  • Author: Hendrik van Loon
  • Publisher: H. Liveright
  • Year Published: 1921
  • ISBN:9780871401755
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 505
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: historical non-fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Medal Winner (first)

Author information: Hendrik van Loon was a journalist, historian and author who wrote over fifty books in his lifetime. The Story of Mankind was written at the behest of his publisher and van Loon completed it in two months. He won the first Newbery Medal for his efforts. Due to his journalistic work, he was banned from Nazi Germany when Hitler took power. More information about van Loon can be found here.

Reviews: Due to the age of the title, it was difficult to find reviews of the book. The Wall Street Journal and Kirkus both reviewed the ninth edition of this book, which published this past December (2013). Both reviewers comment upon the original work and its influence. Wall Street Journal sums up the purpose of Van Loon’s work thusly: “Van Loon was not pretending to be comprehensive but comprehensible, to give an account of human dynamism and progress so that young readers—he dedicated the book to his grandchildren—might share his enthusiasm for the intellectual wealth and ferment from which they spring. Adding gaiety to his already lively prose, again at the urging of his publisher, the author sprinkled black-and-white sketches throughout “The Story of Mankind” to give us glimpses of, among other things, Hannibal crossing the Alps, Luther translating the Bible and the Napoleonic army’s retreat from Moscow.”

Readers annotation: Everything you ever wanted to know about human history.

Summary: The premise of this book is that it is a concise history of mankind beginning with prehistoric times and ending with World War I, an event that had ended not long before this book was written. It goes through major milestones in Western Civilization, such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power and subsequent fall, and the invention of the motor, to name a few. The author says that he focuses mainly on events that had significant bearing on contemporary American, which is one reason why the bulk of the book focuses on European events.

Evaluation: Although there is much to commend in this book, it likely will not appeal to the average young reader of today. Van Loon’s writing style is personable and friendly, reminding the reader of a kindly grandfather who sits you down to tell you stories about times past, peppered with asides and comments about his own life and ideas. For the time period, the book is remarkably well balanced; when I began reading it I expected there to be glaring inaccuracies or outdated information and biases, which I did not find. Van Loon begins the book with the concept of evolution, and discusses religious leaders and sects without seeming to favor one over another, and devoting the same amount of time to Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and Confucius. Of course, given the time period, there are moments of political incorrectness or unsettling thinking, but considering this book was written nearly 100 years ago, I expected it to be much worse. The author freely admits that he hasn’t given a comprehensive account of the history of mankind, having omitted the stories of Africa, Asia, and Australia almost entirely, but he justifies this decision by saying that his primary purpose was to highlight events that have strong bearing on the lives of American children at the time of the book’s publication. Certain subjects, such as the treatment of African Americans after the Civil War, are not discussed in any detail, but again, this book was published in 1921, when many significant civil rights events still had not taken place. He acknowledges his inability to properly discuss the effects World War I had on the world due to the fact that it was still too recent to understand the influence the war had, which is likely why his analysis of the events of the early 1900s lacks the same depth and conviction that his discussion of earlier time periods had. Overall, this is an enlightened and self-aware text that has wit and charm. However, both the length of the book and the density will likely dissuade modern readers from picking it up. Although each chapter is fairly short, the entire book is over 500 pages, and covers the whole history of civilization. It paints with broad strokes, so readers do not get a comprehensive and fulfilling look at any single time period, which can be discouraging. The narrative voice is genial but can also be dry, and this text may feel too much like a homework assignment to most readers. The artwork has a similar homespun charm to it, with each picture looking like something a relative might draw hastily on a napkin to punctuate a story, but these pictures can be confusing and the text is small and sometimes difficult to read. Excerpts from this book might be used in a classroom setting and receive a positive reaction, because the information in each chapter is easily digestible and can be taken out of context without suffering in quality, but any librarian or parent would find it challenging to find a modern audience for this book outside of scholars or those with a particular interest in Newbery Winners.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  Van Loon is a delightful storyteller and creates a mostly impartial narrative that spans millenia. The scope of the book is impressive, but because of its broad and scattered nature, it often loses momentum.
  • Popularity: 1/5 Although it is easy to see why this may have been popular at the time of publication, modern readers will find this title to be dry and lacking suspense or any driving force to keep them engaged.
  • Appeal factors: history of the world, first Newbery winner ever.

Read-alikes: Because of the scope of this tome, no other children’s titles feel appropriate to suggest as read-alikes. Rather, for children who enjoyed learning about the history of civilization, I would recommend the DK Eyewitness books, which is a series with a variety of titles on different time periods in human history. These books are complete with stunning photographs sure to capture the reader’s attention and they are full of interesting and odd facts.

Book talk ideas: This would be a tough book to convince young people to read. The best approach would be to tell them if they want to learn about the entire world and the history of everything, this book would be a great place to start. Then, if they find a subject or historical time period that really excites them, the library would be happy to provide suggestions that meet their interests. Overall though, this one is a tough sell.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. If you had to add a historical event to van Loon’s book, what would it be and why?
  2. In which of the time periods discussed would you most want to live? Why?
  3. How does the artwork impact the telling of the story?

Reason for reading: I really wanted to read this book for this class because I felt that reading the very first Newbery winner would give me insight into the award and help me see how its evolved over time. Although it took me quite a while to make it through the entire book (about half the semester, interrupted frequently by other reads), I think it was well worth my time. After finishing the book, it seems that the award originally placed more emphasis on didactic value and honoring books that were “good” for children in some way–in this case, Van Loon presents an informative and understandable account of all of civilization. This contrasts with more recent winners, such as Flora and Ulysses and The One and Only Ivan. Although these books do have great messages and strong themes about friendship, they seem less directly educational and more accessible. Both of these recent winners also use innovative narration techniques, such as Flora‘s integration of comics into the storytelling or Ivan’s short paragraphs told from the perspective of a gorilla. In The Story of Mankind, Van Loon is very present and addresses his audience directly, making it more difficult for the reader to become absorbed in the story and feeling much more like a school lesson.

Additional relevant information: This book has been updated many times, both by Van Loon and by his son, to include more up-to-date information. The most recent version covers events all the way up to the 1990s. The version I read was the original, so I cannot speak to how these updates have affected the integrity of the original text.

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