Having read and enjoyed Susan Wise Bauer's larger volume of history for adults, I was excited to use this book set with my children. Halfway through it I have decided to continue my search for a foundation for my history class.
My classroom experience using this text has been good in many ways. The story format is engaging, as history should be for a young person (in this case second and third graders). Including stories and myths from those times is not a bad thing, and it is up to the teacher to be able to help the student differentiate between the two. Remember that many of the people of these time periods did believe these things and based their cultures on them. That doesn't mean we have to take the stories as the truth, but knowing them gives us insight into other aspects of these cultures and how they developed further. Students should learn factual information, but I think many approaches to history are so factual that they end up becoming dry, dull drudgery for students, causing them to lose any enjoyment they may have had of the subject.
On that topic, I have greatly enjoyed working through some of the supplemental activities with my students. More importantly the students have loved the activities and have told their parents that history is their favorite subject. I do not do every activity, but choose the ones that give the students a stronger sense of what it would be like to live during this time period. Some of the suggestions in the activity guide have given me ideas for my own projects that the students have really enjoyed, as well. I have the first version of the activity guide and would not recommend it. I also teach art and would endorse very few of the drawings in the book; why expose your young people to such bad art? Buy a Dover or Bellerophon coloring book instead. I have seen some of the drawings in the newer books and they frequently strike me as being drawn in a fierce comic book style, which I'm not sure I like either. One of the benefits of the hands-on activities is that students remember them, which improves retention of the other information. The resources listed for each section are immensely helpful (although my library really needs to have more of them!).
With an engaging storyline approach, some interesting activities, helpful resources and students who are enjoying and remembering the history, what's not to like? There are three things that consistently bother me about this text: over-simplification of information, factual errors and poor writing that comes across as patronizing.
Many historical events can be complex and need simplification, but not to this level. There are several places where the history is condensed and simplified to the point that some events are represented inaccurately. The retelling of the Peloponnesian War should be an embarrassment to the author and the editors. To only mention Pericles' name in one sentence is disgraceful, given his importance during this time period. Unfortunately some of this simplification isn't even necessary, as in sections of the story of Cyrus. Even younger children can understand some of the events that are omitted.
The extreme simplification exacerbates, and at times creates, another problem: factual errors. This is part of the problem with the Peloponnesian War chapter; the story of Alcibiades contains many untrue statements. I am not even planning to use this chapter with my students. Instead we will be reading the story of Alcibiades from "Famous Men of Greece." It frustrates me to know that many people using this book will never catch these errors since they are not well-versed with history themselves. An example of this problem in the activity book is the picture of the Spartan boy hiding the fox: he is wearing Roman armor. Ironically this is one of the better drawings in the book, but I hope it has been removed in the revised version. Like some other users I have reordered some of the chapters to make better sense.
The last complaint I have about this book is the writing and word choice. Children are not simpletons. If we want them to grow up and not be simpletons in adulthood we need to challenge them and teach them, raising them up, not stooping down. Simple things such as word choice have frustrated me, which were not issues in her book for adults. One of the few banned words in my classroom is "got" because it is such a weak verb in most applications, yet it is used repeatedly throughout the text (I eventually began crossing it out in my book and replacing it with something stronger). Children develop an ear for and an understanding of language by encountering it, whether listening to it or reading it themselves, so we should expose them to well-written works. I am disappointed in the quality of the writing in this book.
Overall, I would chose this book over some other history programs I have seen, simply because it does engage students. I would rather see a child develop a love of subjects and learning in general during these younger years and have some of their factual information corrected later (some of which won't be remembered anyway; I also teach middle school and see how much is not retained unless the student really loved the subject). However, I have heavily supplemented in places to provide the information that has been left out (supplementing should happen in most programs, but not for this reason). For anyone looking for a history book with more meat, you might try the Famous Men series. Unfortunately it does not cover all time periods or cultures.
I hope this information is helpful in deciding if this book is right for you. I borrowed a copy from the library first and perused it, but didn't read deeply enough to see the flaws. It still has been very useful for me, but I would recommend you find one and examine it to decide for yourself whether or not the problems can be overcome. It's easy for me to do because I already know this section of history, but if you don't, I would recommend you make sure to use adequate supplemental materials. (But it's never too late for you to learn it too! ;-) )