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Middle School Monday – Gruesome Book Talks

It’s Friday afternoon – the last hour of the school day – and you’re about to be visited by a group of ‘too cool for school’ 8th graders, what do you do? Pull out the gruesome books; the ones whose stories will really make them squirm. First, it will hold their attention long enough to get through a book talk, and second, they might actually check out the books.

1000990I like to start with one of my favorites, Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science. A railroad employee in 1848, Gage was blasting rock to make way for a new line when an accident occurred and an iron rod shot through his skull (and part of his brain fell out – I love telling them that part.) Miraculously, he survived for a number of years afterward, but his personality was forever changed. This was disastrous to him, but a boon to our understanding of the brain. This video explains it better than I can.

I follow that with a series of books that explains the good, the bad, and the really icky parts of history –  You Wouldn’t Want To… This is a great series with its own web page. I enjoy going through the Egyptian mummification process with them. The description of prison conditions in You Wouldn’t Want to Be in a Medieval Dungeon! are especially graphic. And, as an aside, the Greek Athlete volume is helpful in explaining to the younger students (in a cartoonish and nonthreatening way) that the original Olympians competed in the nude.

croakedMost of the students have a good idea of the life and accomplishments of George Washington, but few know what happened on the last day of his life. How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous explains his last day in gruesome detail. From the multiple leechings to the poisonous beetle induced boils, they are shocked to learn that Washington was actually being subjected to the best medical procedures of his time. The fact that he would have died anyway due to the lack of simple antibiotics does little to ameliorate impact of this graphic description. There is apparently a companion volume: How They Choked: Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous, but I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on it yet.

And ending with a bang, I introduce the students to the Wicked History series, which I believe is up to 20 books. We talk about the famous people featured in each volume and the ruthlessness that it took (and still sometimes takes) to be a powerful ruler. But I have to say my favorite part is explaining to the that the vlad‘impaler’ part of the title Vlad the Impaler: the Real Count Dracula probably doesn’t mean what they think it does. I go on to explain what impaling meant and the type of death one experienced from it and watch as the students squirm in their seats. Because, honestly, if you can’t have fun while you’re doing book talks, what is the point?

Anyone else have titles to add? I’d love to have more for my repertoire. Add a comment below if you have a favorite gruesome book or two.


  1. Zombie Makers by Rebecca Johnson is AWESOME and chock full of disgustingly fascinating information. Guinea worms! That’s a fun book talk that can also lead to an awareness of the importance of clean drinking water in the developing world. But each and every zombie-making parasite is creepy, horrifying and terrific to read about. She also has When Lunch Fights Back, which I highly recommend. These are definitely two of my favorite books to book talk, and I am right there with you on the rest of your list!

  2. Nikki Brewer says:

    Peeps by Scott Westerfield includes nonfiction about parasites every other chapter of this fiction book. It’s absolutely disgusting and fact-based! My middle schoolers ate it up!

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says:

      I loved Peeps by Westerfeld and loved that it was written this way. So fun – and gruesome.

  3. The Hideous History books coming out in July 2016!

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