Fantastic Stone Age picture books

Published on: 07 February 2024

Author-illustrator Bridget Marzo recommends her favourite picture books set in the Stone Age that cleverly combine fact and fiction. 

What would we do if we lived in the wilds with our family 20,000 years ago with no books, shops, wheels or technology? It’s a great prompt for children but still it’s a stretch for younger ones to imagine the distant past. 

Picture books are an ideal format for us to show more of the life of our earliest ancestors. And by focusing on the familiar, we can use fun archaeological facts to inspire curiosity and even empathy with our amazing forebears.  

InMo’s Best Friend, A Stone Age Story, about the ‘first dogI imagined Mo’s family were tidying up and getting to their tasks after the winter lull. An odd sound from a bush piques Mo’s curiosity and, forgetting family warnings about keeping away from wild animals, she comes to its rescue. Cautiously, Mo and the dog learn about each other and finally have fun playing. 

But it is panic stations when she brings her new friend home, especially when dog and, worse, baby Babba disappear. A hunt ensues with Mo in the lead, tracking down the dog who is instinctively protecting Babba and scaring off a hungry lynx.  

After I finished the story, I learnt that 26,000-year-old footprints of a child were found in the Chauvet cave in France, alongside canine paw prints. I also included some ‘factual’ activities gleaned from the work of experimental archaeologists and my experience of a fantastic family pre-historic survival day with Will Lord of the Stone Age'.   

Who first began painting on cave walls? Mordecai Gerstein’s The First Drawingprovides an emotionally charged answer to that with his evocative story set 30,000 years ago, also inspired by the Chauvet cave. An imaginative eight-year-old ‘sees’ galloping horses in the flickering light on a wall, a mammoth in a cloud.

Nicknamed ‘the child that sees what is not there, his workaday family don’t believe him when he tells them that he has met a real mammoth. In his pressing need to convey what he’s seen, he takes a burnt stick from the fire and traces the outline of the mammoth on a wall until it feels so real his father moves in to attack it. He’s made the ‘first’ drawing.

Gerstein expresses the wonder on so many faces. It IS magic. Our sympathy with the child’s frustration at being disbelieved turns to admiration for the power of this young Stone Age artist to convey what he sees. 

The front cover of Stone Age Boy

Satoshi Kitamura’s Stone Age Boyis a brilliant combination of fact and fiction that is much studied in schools, a classic that was published before recent research into Stone Age gender roles and skin colour. A boy falls through a hole into the Stone Age and meets a girl who introduces him to life with her Stone Age family. 

Kitamura’s pen manages to combine the wonder of a Stone Age setting and the fear of a cave bear with descriptive detail of Stone Age tools, activities and more. He includes a useful timeline to help give a sense of what thousands of years before our era means. And there’s a depth charge in this story that is also about persistence. Did he dream it all? Does it matter? The boy’s wonder at his experience of the Stone Age has turned him as an adult into a practising archaeologist. 

In a more playful mode, Mick Manning and Brita Granström’s Stone Age Bone Age invites children to join a friendly family of hunter-gatherersFacts are shown in different script from the story to expand on that invitation. Stone Age facts are thus unobtrusively combined into an adventurous sequence, from a mammoth ambush to watching the walls of a cave ‘come alive. And it effortlessly packs in a surprising range of facts, explanations and even a Stone Age glossary of terms. 

The book which I recommend for all, including adults who love comics, is Lan Cook and Laurent Kling’s lively 24 Hours in the Stone Age. It opens at dawn with a snore emerging from a cave somewhere in northern Europe, 18,000 years ago. We meet Auri who promises to show us life in her familyanother invitation to participate. And from a range of fictional and funny incidents in each chapter, we absorb plenty of Stone Age facts from different family ‘experts’ as they involve each other in fishing, hunting and the odd funny incident. 

The front cover of 24 Hours in the Stone Age

Interspersed between relevant chapters, Laurent Kling’s detailed illustrations of foraging, knapping, carving, making a fire, even cave painting, make me want to try them all out. It’s a gift for anyone who loves plunging into visual detail, and the character-led chapters and guides make it a valuable reference to return to.  

I can’t leave without a final comment about recent efforts in picture bookto inspire children’s interest in our pre-historic world: how refreshing that, thanks to the latest facts of archaeological research, we are now representing Stone Agers as dark-skinned, with women playing leading roles! 

Mo’s Best Friend, A Stone-Age Storyby Bridget Marzo is out now. 

Topics: Features

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