Living Books on Napoleon

We are zipping through history this year which means that you, dear reader, get a lot of booklists. Though our topic is generally American history, I am trying to include key world events as we go along, and if Napoleon does not qualify as one of those, I don’t know what does. I also have a list of books on the French Revolution.

Living Books on Napoleon

Our spine, as for the French revolution, was Helene Geurber’s The Story of Modern France. We have just been reading the relevant sections, picking up where we left off after the revolution and that has been quite enough for 3 weeks. In fact, to end the section I have been reading 3 chapters a day which is a bit more than I usually do in one sitting. Guerber is good, though, and provides a wonderful spine for this time period — detailed but not overwhelming, thorough but interesting. You should be able to find this as an e-book, by the way, and perhaps even for free.

There were two long picture books which I read to my kids, each in one sitting. They are I, Crocodile by Fred Marcellino, the story of a crocodile brought back from Egypt by Napoleon, told from the crocodile’s point of view, not surprisingly a silly book:


and The Emperor and the Drummer Boy by Ruth Robbins, a slightly longer book and  a bit more serious. It has a message about loyalty and shows both positive and negative sides of the Emperor — he puts his men in danger for pride’s sake but then regrets it and praises the young protagonist’s loyalty. I found it a wee bit sappy  and obvious myself.


It does raise an interesting question though — why are there so many books about Napoleon? Okay, I know he’s one of the most important figures in European history ever, but there really seems to be a fascination with him. And more than that, a craving to understand him. There are a great number of books which praise this man who has a megalomaniacal (is that a word?) complex named after him and who tried to conquer Europe and the world. Compare him, for instance to Hitler. Both had great ambitions. Both had initially great success and then great failure. Why has Hitler become an insult — as in every politician compares his rival to him — whereas Napoleon still inspires such awe? Of course, the holocaust makes a difference. It is hard to view Hitler well after that. But there is still something, I maintain, about Napoleon.

Giving in completely to the digression here – compare Napoleon and George Washington. Both became leaders of their countries after revolutions that overthrew kings. Washington remained humble, kept his country’s best interests at heart, and was basically a good man. Napoleon was anything but humble. While he brought France much glory for a time, I think over time we see that his country is not his highest priority. It is not so much that he wants bad things for it as that he cannot accept that anything is good for France but himself. And while he seems to have had some good qualities, like a loyalty and devotion to his troops, occasionally compassion on his enemies, I find more bad than good in his character. And then, of course, he completely undercut the Revolution by making himself emperor. Not that the French Revolution was a smashing success before Napoleon stepped on the stage. But imagine how things might have gone differently if a man more like Washington, perhaps Lafayette, had seized control at this point.

Dont worry, I’m coming to the end of my digression — I read a book once that showed how the Titanic disaster is a microcosm of all our lives and fates and that our fascination with it is just because of this. Somehow that event captured and encapsulated the human story. My contention is that Napoleon does somewhat of the same thing — he is all of us, on steroids if you will. He flames high, his good qualities seem to shine and then he falls, oh so far, and burns out. I think we empathize with him; we want to soar with him and then as he came crashing down we are face to face with our own fallen natures. We are fascinated with Napoleon because we need to understand him; he is all of us wrapped up in one little, vibrant, megalomaniacal bundle. End of digression.

I looked at two books with the plot young girl meets Napoleon in exile (I remember reading another one as a child and liking it; anybody know what it might have been?). One,  Betsy and the Emperor by Staton Rabin, I rejected out of hand as not terribly well-written. should you want to look at it, it is roughly 280 pages, 20 chapters long and is a middle school level.


The other one, Gracie and the Emperor by Errol Broome, I had my 4th grader read. This book was well-suited to her level but was the disappointment of the day (or three weeks). She seemed to like it well enough but her narrations almost never mentioned Napoleon himself and she admitted that she didn’t really know how he fit into the story other than being someone who lived near the main character. So either she was missing something or there is really not much about Napoleon himself in this book.

napoleon10I looked at a number of books which are narrative biographies of Napoleon. My general policy was to select the oldest ones available through our library system. I picked two to actually use:

napoleon7I had my ninth grader read this one, The True Story of Napoleon by Anthony Corley. This book probably could have been done a little earlier. I would call it 8th-10th grade level. My son seemed interested enough in it and narrated it well.


My 5th grader read Napoleon  by Manuel Komroff. It seemed like a decent book. He seemed to understand it and to be at least mildly interested in it. I’d say it’s 5th-8th grade level.

Among my rejects were Audrey Cammiade’s Napoleon, Stephen Pratt’s Napoleon, and Susan Conner’s The Age of Napoleon.

napoleon4 napoleon5 napoleon2

Cammiade’s book appears slim at only 100 pages and it has short, 1-3 page chapters but I thought it seemed a  bit dry and that it delivered facts too quickly to be a good living book, if that makes sense. Conner’s book is thicker and is the sort with lots of footnotes — more scholarly certainly. It would definitely be high school level. Pratt’s had lots of pictures but seemed very fact based and without any story to it.

I had my 8th grade daughter read a biography of Josephine, More than a Queen by Frances Mossiker:


This is not the most lengthy book — she read it in 8 sittings — but she seemed to enjoy it. I got the impression that it made the figure of Josephine come alive. I’d call it middle school level though a high schooler could certainly read it as well.

I’d like to finish by giving a shout out to two other books: Desiree which I read myself and blogged on here and The Court of Stone Children by Eleanor Cameron. Cameron is an author whose other books we have enjoyed. I could not find time to have anyone read this one. It is a completely fictional story of some children who are transported back in time as far as I can tell. It came up in a library search when I looked for books on Napoleon. If you’ve read it, I’d be interested to hear opinions on it. We may come back to it in time for a purely fun read aloud.


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