May 12, 2011


Epic Adventure: Epic Climbs. By John Cleare. Kingfisher. $19.99.

Epic Adventure: Epic Voyages. By Robyn Mundy and Nigel Rigby. Kingfisher. $19.99.

     Thrilling stories, thrillingly told, are the basis of the new Epic Adventure series. Or perhaps “portrayed” is a better word than “told,” because while the writing in the series’ first two books is fine, it is the books’ design and illustrations that are exemplary and that will make these oversize volumes attractive for kids in the target age range of 10 and up. These are big books (nearly 10x12 inches) with more content than their 64 numbered pages would suggest, since each contains a series of fold-out pages that are integral to the stories and add considerably to the content and visual appeal. Epic Climbs is about some of the most challenging mountains on Earth: Everest and K2 (the tallest peaks), McKinley, the Matterhorn and Eiger. The expected stories are thrilling enough – Sir Edmund Hillary’s and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent to the top of Mount Everest, for example. But the less-known ones are, if anything, even more fascinating – such as the failed attempt to conquer that mountain, 29 years earlier, by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. As interesting as the stories of mountain climbing are those of the people who live year-round in the shadows of these gigantic peaks: the pictures of them, their villages, the local produce and local lifestyle, are intermingled with pictures of climbing gear old and new, famed climbers who succeeded or failed, photos of the mountains as seen from space, and a great deal of fascinating information. One example among many: from October to March, winds on Everest are almost constant at Category 1 hurricane levels of 75 miles an hour – but from June to September, there is almost no wind at all. John Cleare’s book shows the sure knowledge of someone who himself climbs mountains regularly, but it slips up occasionally in down-to-earth facts, at one point stating that the capital of Alaska is Anchorage (it is Juneau). Still, as a visual exploration of some of the world’s most challenging peaks and the people who have surmounted them (if not tamed them; they are untamable), Epic Climbs is wonderful to read and even better to look at.

     Robyn Mundy and Nigel Rigby do an equally fine job with Epic Voyages. Here the focus is on five of the great explorers of times past: Ferdinand Magellan, James Cook, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Thor Heyerdahl and Sir Francis Chichester. There are connections among these men that even readers familiar with their voyages may not know. For example, Cook visited Easter Island on his second voyage – and the island’s stone statues helped Heyerdahl develop his theories about Polynesian migration. There are tragedies as well as triumphs throughout this book, from Cook’s death during a battle with Hawaiian natives to the killing, under desperate conditions, of much-loved sled puppies born during Shackleton’s expedition. The maps of the various explorers’ routes are fascinating in themselves, and so are such features as a foldout showing construction of Chichester’s Gipsy Moth IV and a photo of a strange deep-water fish called the snake mackerel, first seen alive during Heyerdahl’s voyage. The accomplishments of the voyages are set side by side with their failures (the entire theory on the basis of which Heyerdahl sailed has been discredited), but the emphasis here is on heroism, on daring, on the willingness of explorers to go beyond the limits of the known to try to extend human knowledge while (not incidentally) bringing new riches and prestige to their home countries. Beautifully produced and visual impressive, both Epic Adventure volumes will bring readers thrills while at the same time providing a great deal of fascinating historical information – making them books that teach successfully in a visually focused age.

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