Book of the Month: Shackleton’s Journey

Shackleton’s Journey is William Grill’s stunningly illustrated account of the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross the frozen heart of Antarctica between 1914-15 with 26 brave men and 69 dogs.

Grill’s plain language, dotted with more challenging terms important to a story about exploration (and helpfully printed in bold to indicate that readers can discover their meanings in the book’s Glossary), makes this book accessible to readers aged 10+. However, the real stars of this book are Grill’s incredibly detailed pencil illustrations and maps, which flow under, over and around the sparse islands of text from page to page, mirroring the rare glimpses of civilisation Shackleton and his men get in an otherwise vast emptiness of sea and ice.

Anyone who’s ever read or watched Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – with its mysterious maps, wild, dangerous landscapes and encounters with equally wild, dangerous creatures – will feel its echo in William Grill’s epic true story of a band of companions dependent on one another for survival.

Classroom Approaches

The way that the illustrations bring the setting to life would make Shackleton’s Journey an excellent starting point to a topic about Antarctica, exploration and scientific topics such as animal habitats and the basic needs of humans and animals. Shackleton’s story raises questions, not least about the cost of exploration in the number of lives lost. Was the risk worth it?

The book would make a great model for learning about the features of non-fiction texts and the different ways that they can communicate information. Thinking about the choices that the author made could help to develop pupils’ visual literacy skills through ‘reading’ the illustrations, finding meaning in the detail and studying the interplay between the text, the illustrations and the layouts of each page. Grill has drawn a tiny Endurance stuck in endless pack ice spread across two pages to bring home that “Endurance was now 500 miles from the nearest civilisation…”. Neatly drawn rows of tools, provisions and equipment reveal that Shackleton’s crew had no technology of the kind we use today, no radios or power tools, no equipment to stay in contact with home or help. Shackleton’s Journey is a story for our time. To support a Recovery Curriculum, the story can help kids to reflect on the importance of teamwork, sharing, resourcefulness, sacrifice, endurance and hope for getting through difficult periods. Explore with your class why “Small treats… were key to keeping them sane while they waited for rescue”, and why having a sense of purpose, something to do and even the simplest kind of entertainment can be as important to our mental wellbeing as food and shelter. The men’s relationship with the rest of their team, as well as their dogs, could form part of PSHE/SEMH schemes of work around empathy, friendship and loss.

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