Big Bad Ironclad! (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #2) Reviews

UPDATE TIME: 2017-08-06 
Review Score: 5 out of 5 star From 49 user ratings

"Convicted spy Nathan Hale continues to distract his executioners from carrying out their duty of hanging him, this time with a tale from the Civil War. This carries on from the first book in the series, in which Hale is given knowledge of the entirety of American history in a magically goofy way. Therefore, even though he exists in the Revolutionary War, he can tell of events far in the future.

This book starts with the Union plan to weaken the Confederate states with a blockade of their supplies. Since much of the South borders the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, a navy is key to this effort. Unfortunately, the Confederates take control of the Virginia port that contains the Union’s best ship, the Merrimack, and set about armoring it in iron. The Union responds by commissioning an engineer to design their own ironclad ship. The battle between the two ships is intense and uncertain.

Woven throughout the narrative is the story of Will Cushing, a prankster whose military membership is never a sure thing. He’s both an inspiring and amusing character as he uses his enthusiasm and trickster mind to develop creative solutions to problems. He’s been given the distinction of a forefather to the modern Navy SEAL. I was actually very disappointed in myself that I had never heard of him until reading this book. (And I’m a little ashamed to admit that.) Nevertheless, my reluctant reader boys have been passing this book around since it went in my library, and Cushing is their new hero.

Though heavy on fact, there are a number of fantasy elements in the story. For example, one historical figure with the last name of Fox is portrayed as a fox. This definitely made him memorable and recognizable, but the presence of an anthropomorphized fox isn’t exactly accurate. But that’s part of the fun. The fantasy elements are easily recognizable, and other questions that readers might have can be answered. More than anything, I see the blend of fantasy and history as an effective way to get the target audience—middle grade and young adult—excited about history.

It was brought to my attention in other reviews that a map on the endpaper originally held a grievous error, listing Kansas as a Confederate state. I did some digging.

Here is a blog post containing a fun exchange between a librarian in Kansas and the author about this error:

And here is a good write-up of the author’s Kansas apology tour:

Overall, I thought Big Bad Ironclad is fun addition to this series, a good introduction to Civil War events, and a text that will likely excite readers into doing further research. I also have a lot of respect for the fun, yet sincere way that Nathan Hale (the author, not the spy) took responsibility for his error.

• No language or sexual issues
• Battle violence
• No drug/alcohol use
" said.

"Nathan Hale has been a favorite local (Utah) author and artist for several years now. I first met him at a booksigning in suburban Salt Lake City, and casually followed what he was working on since then. Up until last year the highlight of his career has been the two graphic novels written by Shannon Hale (no relation): Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. Both are very entertaining takes on fairy tales, both come highly recommended by me.

Now Hale has his own series, taking stories from American History and retelling them in a funny and informative way: Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales. The first, published last year was One Dead Spy, the account of Nathan Hale's namesake, Nathan Hale. The second book, also published in 2012, is Big Bad Ironclad!

Big Bad Ironclad, is of course a Civil War tale, about the sea battle between the Monitor and the Virginia (when I was growing up, we called that one the Merrimack), two of the first ironclad ships. The format of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales is that each story is narrated by historic spy Nathan Hale, delaying his own execution Sheherezade-style by telling stories from American History to his own Hangman and a British Provost. Hale (the author) plays with the idea of Hale (the spy) as an omniscient historian, who's able to tell stories that haven't happened yet, and he's balanced out by the Hangman, who's brutish but loves cute little animals, and the Provost, who reminds me of a stuffier Sam Eagle from The Muppet Show. But...British.

A brief prologue does a good job of introducing the Civil War, and even though Big Bad Ironclad is really only one small episode within the larger conflict, the book manages to give perspective to the war. We meet Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, we learn about General Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan to cut off the South from any outside support, and meet Gideon Welles, Lincoln's "Father Neptune" and Secretary of the Navy. These people put the ironclad plans into motion, and does so in a quick, straightforward way that is easy for kids and teens to get onboard with.

The graphic novel format keeps things moving quickly, and lets Hale play with words and images--Gideon Welles' assistant Gustavus Fox is rendered as a cute little fox, and Confederacy naval leader Stephen Mallory is shown as a "sharkface," although Hale does point out that he's not a villain so much as a leader of the opposition.

Interspersed with the main story about the building and battle of the Monitor and Virginia is the story of William Cushing--a guy I hadn't ever heard of, but a navy officer who ends up becoming the prototype for Navy SEALS. His adventures punctuate the already exciting war story, and are able to provide a continual thread that gives us insight into the other things that were happening away from the ironclads.

Big Bad Ironclad includes biographies of the major characters in the story (so that kids can find out that Stephen Mallory wasn't really known as "Sharkface"), a bibliography that includes resources on the Ironclads, the Civil War, and some of the major characters in the book; a "Corrections Baby" page that addresses some historical discrepancies, and a Civil War timeline that points out where Will Cushing was at various points in the conflict. One of my favorite "extras" is at the bottom of the timeline, where we're shown how to build our own Monitor from a few "plastic bricks." As a die-hard LEGO fan, I was pleased to see that.

Even though this is only two books into the series, I love it. The humor, the adventure, the historic accuracy and the clever diversions from history are all the way I think history should be taught to kids. If you have children coming up on their middle school years--or even if you don't, you'll want them to pick up Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales. The next book in the series comes out in August 2013 -- and with a title like The Donner Dinner Party, I'm more excited than I should be. I can't wait.

Post Script:

Big Bad Ironclad does have one pretty spectacular error--in the endpapers of the book is a Civil War map, and Kansas is miscolored as a Confederate state. The error was caught after printing, and Nathan Hale (the author) went on a Kansas Apology Tour, speaking at schools and libraries, getting "booed" by kids (and possibly adults). He drew a mini-comic about Bleeding Kansas especially for the event, and provided accurate maps and let kids "Unionize" Kansas with a blue marker. Kinda embarrassing, but it also shows Hale's dedication to his job, and the sense of humor he has about himself. You can see more about all that at
" said.

" I learned a lot about the Civil War naval battles, a subject I honestly didn't even know existed! " said.

"History was always one of my least favorite subjects in school. It never felt like I was taught anything interesting. It was just a large collection of important people, places, and dates. Anytime, there was something that remotely piqued my interest, it was glossed over or ignored. I believe a lot of people my age felt this way, and that if you asked someone what they most remembered from history they could tell you one of two things - "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue," or some variation of "If you don't learn history, you're doomed to repeat it." Since I have become a parent, I have thought a lot about the future education of my children. and making sure they get a better education than I did. That's not to say that mine was bad, but I can look back on it now and see how it could have been better. One way I would do that is to make history fun, and I have found the best way to do that is with a Living History curriculum and texts that capture the reader's attention. A book series I have found that accomplished that is called Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales.

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales is a five (soon to be six) volume set. The books in the set are as follows:

One Dead Spy - A Revolutionary War Tale
Big Bad Ironclad! - A Civil War Tale
Donner Dinner Party - A Pioneer Tale
Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood - A World War I Tale
The Underground Abductor - An Abolitionist Tale
Alamo All-Stars - A Texas Tale

For those unfamiliar with who Nathan Hale was, he was a soldier for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Nathan Hale is also the name of the author of this series of books. In Book 1 - One Dead Spy, Nathan Hale, the historical figure, is scheduled to be executed for being a spy. A British soldier is looking for the execution papers, and a hangman (the comic relief) is trying to help Hale come up with famous last words to say. Hale finally says, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." His memorable words caused a "Big Huge Book of American History" to appear and absorb Hale into it. Then, Hale instantly reappeared with all knowledge of American history including future history. This turns into the whole premise/running gag of the series. At the beginning of every book, the Brit and the hangman are planning to hang Hale, but he regales them with a tale of American history or what would in reality be the future to them.

The books themselves are told in graphic novel/comic book format. That means it visually draws you and feels more like reading a story than listening to a history lesson. The historical figures interact with one another, and it is not reading something in the third person. Throughout the Hazardous Tales, there are lots of interruptions by the three members mentioned above, which provides the reader with context and depth when needed. It also serves to lighten the mood at times, so the reader forgets that they are not only reading for fun, but learning something too! Of the current five books, the one I enjoyed the best was Donner Dinner Party, because who doesn't love a tale about cannibalism? :)

Now, I would like to address what I like and dislike about the series. I will start with what I dislike, because there isn't much I dislike. At times, there is some disrespectful language. It's not vulgar, but I guess sassy would be the right word. The children in Donner Dinner Party are at times disrespectful towards their parents and wish their older sister would shut up about her pony. Your kids are going to be exposed to that kind of sass, but you can let them know that is a trait that will not be tolerated in your house, so that's my biggest gripe.

What I liked about this book is the level of detail, which I will explain as best I can. For starters, the inside covers of the book have a map of the United States and what it looked like for the year the book takes place. One Dead Spy's map is 1775; Donner Dinner Party's map is 1846; and so on. The front of each book has differing flags, depending on the era for the book. One Dead Spy has an American flag with 13 stars on one side and a British flag on the other side. Big Bad Ironclad! has an American flag on one side and a Confederate flag on the other side. On the back of the book is a "Hazard Level," which is basically a warning of what your children will encounter. For example, Big Bad Ironclad! has a Hazard Level Red for Explosive. This level includes "blockade-runners, privateers, burning shipyards, underwater toilets, Swedish swearing, ironclad battleships, and a bomb on a stick." I also love that at the end of the book there is actual factual history, questions about why some parts were included and other parts excluded, and a bibliography for the book. Even all these facets are done in an engaging way to not break character and keep history light and fun, but also accurate.

I honestly was not sure what to expect from these books when I received them. I thought they would either be dry stories that the author attempted to make interesting or so far off the wall that there would be no literary value to them. However, I was pleasantly surprised by them, and they more than exceeded my expectations. Hale (the author, not the historical figure) carefully picked his subjects for each book to ensure he started with a compelling historical account. He then even more carefully researched the history to make the story as close to factual as the records were able to verify. What he ended up producing is a series that I hope has no end in sight. So who are these books for? I would say a child in 3rd grade, perhaps 2nd if an advanced reader would be a good starting age for these books. I hate to put an age cap on them because tastes vary and some middle schoolers might feel they are too grown up for them, but conversely, some high schoolers might love them. Each child is different. I do think that these are more boy books than girl books, because of the comic format and tendency for the comics to skew a bit gruesome at times. But don't rule them out if you only have girls, check one out at a library and if they love them, buy them! These belong in the classroom and on the home bookshelf, as your child will want to read them multiple times. Highly recommended!
" said.

" Did I mention that this series is by someone ALSO named Nathan Hale who was born exactly 200 years after the spy died because that would be a true statement.I actually learned things in this book ?? about boats in the civil war ?? okay " said.

" Even more delightful than the first one! The history book that swallowed Nathan Hale (the Revolutionary war hero, not the author) shows him the first naval battles of the Civil War, and he regales his hangman with a story about ironclad ships and what is essentially the first submarine! So much fun, and still informative! " said.

"NO NO NO NO NO. 0 stars. I can't even get passed the fly leaf. What I hoped to be a decent GN that blurs the lines of fiction/nonfiction with enough nonfiction some libraries put it in nonfiction collections had a rather large error on the fly leaf in a map differentiating between Union, Confederate, and boarder states and territories. It marks Kansas as a Confederate state. Granted it has been a while since my college Civil War class I double, triple and quadrupled checked to make sure I wasn't crazy and never did I see KANSAS listed as a Confederate state. I hope, for the sake of map crazy kids out there, that this was an error limited to this specific printing otherwise there will be some confused kids out there.

Update. I just updated my review to 3 stars aka good because the mistake was caught and hopefully now fixed. Probably still won't be buying these for my library because if there are mistakes like this right off the bat are there mistakes that I did catch else where?
" said.

"American patriot and colonial spy Nathan Hale continues regaling his executioners with tales from future history (because he got sucked into a book or something in the first volume--just go with it). Here he gives the story of the first armored naval vessels in the 1860s. The two most famous ones (because they were the first ones) are the Monitor and the Merrimack (renamed the Virginia), built by the United States and the Confederacy respectively. He describes not only their battles and ultimate fates, but also the long and challenging process of first convincing the respective governments to invest in armored sea vessels and then building those boats. The story is exciting and also has plenty of appropriate jokes sprinkled throughout.

Also sprinkled throughout is the story of Will Cushing, a man dismissed from the Naval Academy for playing pranks. When the American Civil War started, the Navy was desperate enough for officers that they took him back. He soon became a colorful, creative, and cunning naval officer. He had a distinguished career with many daring raids and attacks both at sea and on land, earning him the nickname "Lincoln's Commando." He was an inspiration for the Navy Seals.

As with other volumes in the series, the back includes a section describing the bits that aren't historically accurate (surprisingly few) and a bibliography so readers can learn more about the people and the ironclads.

Highly recommended!
" said.

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