author: Matt Doeden
illustrator: Samuel Hiti
Lerner / Millbrook, 2010
One of the volumes in Millbrook’s “Life in Ancient Civilizations” series, the 48-page Aztecs is divided into chapters covering daily life, religion, ideas and inventions, and how the empire was ruled. Included is a timeline, pronunciation guide, glossary, further reading section, list of websites for additional information, and an index. As with the other volumes in this series (Babylonians: Life in Ancient Babylonia, Chinese: Life in China’s Golden Age, Egyptians: Life in Ancient Egypt, Greeks: Life in Ancient Greece, and Romans: Life in Ancient Rome), the brief chapters and conversational tone will appeal to report-driven youngsters searching for quick information about “disappeared” cultures.
Interspersed with color photos of artifacts, including what might be a sacrificial knife, Hiti’s colorful, comic-book-style brush, ink and computer-generated illustrations—showing expressionless men with undersized heads and muscle-bound bodies, and children with huge heads—are spectacularly unappealing.
But the main problem with this sort of anthropology book for young readers is that it is, by its simplistic nature, poorly conceived and destined to fail. I doubt that it would be possible to describe, in this limited format and in a way that is interesting, factual, and respectful, what it was to live in any particular place in a particular time.
In his introductory sentences, Doeden demonstrates why this was a bad idea: “Many different groups lived in ancient Mexico. One group was the Aztecs. They are known for building great temples and killing people for their gods.” It’s no secret that this perspective is not that of the Mexica (Aztec), yesterday or today.
Not surprisingly, much of the text concerns itself with distancing young readers from the lives of the people they are studying. Here’s an example, with what children are led to think in my italics:
“To please their gods, the Aztecs sacrificed many people. Priests were in charge of the sacrifices. Most of the people killed were captured warriors or slaves. But sometimes the Aztecs killed children. People thought killing children for Tlaloc would bring rain (but it really wouldn’t)…. The Aztecs believed they had to make sacrifices (but they really didn’t). They thought the sun needed blood (but it really didn’t). Without blood, the sun might stop shining (but it really wouldn’t). The world might end (but it really wouldn’t).”
The rest of the text in Aztecs veers from ho-hum descriptions (“Most Aztecs ate two meals a day—one in the morning and one in the evening”) to breathless revulsion (“A person wearing the wrong clothing could be killed!”) to unsubstantiated theory (“The Aztecs may even have raised dogs as food”) to justification for colonialism.
Here, the author always describes the Aztecs as either “Aztecs” or “Aztec warriors,” and always describes the Spanish as either “Spanish” or “Spanish explorers.” Here is an example of how the author manipulates the young reader to accept uncritically the Spanish war of conquest of the Mexica Empire:
“In 1520, Hernan Cortes and a group of Spanish explorers came to Tenochtitlan. They brought new diseases to the area. They also had better horses, guns, metal armor, and better swords than the Aztecs. They took Montezuma II (sic) prisoner. The Aztecs tried to fight off the explorers, but they did not succeed. Montezuma II (sic) died in 1520. Tenochtitlan fell in August 1521. The city was ruined. The Aztec Empire came to an end. (italics mine)”
And finally, near the end, there is “Echoes of the Aztecs,” similarly cleansed:
“Much of the Aztecs’ past is a mystery. The Spanish destroyed and burned buildings, books, and other symbols of the Aztec culture. The people mixed with the Spanish. The Spanish brought Christian beliefs to the region. Aztec culture slowly faded. (italics mine)”
From every indication, all of Doeden’s resources are from cultural outsiders, including material such as Fiona MacDonald’s How to Be an Aztec Warrior and Philip Steele’s The Aztec News (“a fun book set up in the style of a newspaper published by the ancient Aztecs”). The Aztecs: Life in Tenochtitlan is not recommended.