You won’t expect to experience a number of belly laughs while reading about real-life deaths, but with How They Croaked, that’s what you’ll get. Written in a casual, friendly, sometimes conspiratorial tone and laden with quick quips and gentle puns, tempered by a heavy dose of gore, the irresistibly appealing style and content are reminiscent of Adam Gidwitz’s Tale Dark and Grimm trilogy. With whimsical pen-and-ink illustrations interspersed throughout, this book will entice readers from age 8 to adult.
At 4-6 pages each, biographical sketches of the 19 featured celebrities waste no space on the boring stuff – birth, childhood, early career, etc. – but instead skip straight to the most interesting bits. Those bits consist of an overview of who each person was, often emphasizing the tragedies and scandals
they experienced, followed by a gruesomely detailed account of exactly how and why they died. Author Georgia Bragg seems to particularly relish mythbusting famous misconceptions: for example, Cleopatra didn’t die by asp, and Pocahontas never romanced John Smith. Following each biography is a two-page spread of brief elaborations on relevant topics, including details on the medical conditions and treatments the subjects faced; fascinating lists (“Things to do with old mummies,” “Some famous last words,” and a list of all the foods eaten in one day by Henry VIII and his court); timelines; and how-tos (on topics such as leeching, bloodletting, and cremation).
Ultimately, this is the most fun I have ever had reading collective biography – or any biography, for that matter. As Bragg writes in the introduction, “There are funny crying parts and disgusting stupid parts and hideous cool parts, but it’s pretty much one train wreck after another. And who can tear their eyes away from a train wreck?” Fascinating, informative, and hilarious, How They Croaked amasses those wrecks into one utterly absorbing volume.
Review by Emily Converse Carmichael
How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg, illustrated by Kevin O’Malley; Walker & Company: 2011.