Reviews from Professional Publications

School Library Journal, starred review (December 2005)

"In A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and within 24 hours, ash, pumice, and volcanic rubble had covered, and annihilated, the city of Pompeii. It was not until the 18th century that workers began to uncover the remains of this nearly forgotten, except in legend, city and its inhabitants. In this well-researched account, Deem retells the story of this devastating eruption, combining a lively text with photographs of the bones and artifacts that have been unearthed through the years. In 1863, an excavator discovered a fascinating way to study human remains. As bodies covered in hot ash and enveloped by volcanic material decayed, spaces were left around the skeletons. After the hollow areas were filled with plaster, the surrounding debris was chipped away, resulting in detailed plaster casts that preserved imprints of the people's dying moments, showing their facial expressions and body positions as well as their clothing and possessions. Deem explains how scientists have used these molds and other evidence to piece together the life styles and final moments of some of the victims, and conveys these heart-wrenching tales. Dramatic photographs of the casts capture the horror of this event and help readers to envision day-to-day life in this civilization. With incredibly engrossing images and narrative, this is a powerful and poignant piece of nonfiction."

Children's Literature  

"James Deem provides budding archeologists with this intriguing look at the lost town. The first chapter gives a bit of history and background of the town itself, while the rest of the book is devoted to looking at the town from an archeological standpoint. Chapter Two details how the city was eventually rediscovered and became one of the most famous archeological sites in the world. Chapter Three is entirely dedicated to describing how many of the bodies left imprints in the ash, imprints that one could use to create plaster casts of the victims. Chapter Four explains how these casts help historians re-create the last moments of the victims and even tell a bit about their lives. Chapter Five describes the lesser-known town of Herculaneum, also a victim of Vesuvius. The final chapter describes Pompeii in the modern world, from new techniques for creating casts to threats to the city. This detailed yet easily comprehensible text is accompanied by numerous color photographs. A must for any student researching a report on Pompeii."

The Center of Children's Literature (Carthage College)  

"An oversized, horizontal orientation, with many black and white photos (some from earlier eras in which curious tourists flocked to the city), recent full color photos, maps, and additional information presented in marginalia has resulted in an exemplary production. Wide margins set off the concentrated amount of information, including sequence details drawn from the writing of Younger Pliny, whose uncle died in the eruption. The mistaken idea that lava flow did the destruction is corrected in the detailed description of the deluge of ash and pumice with surges of superhot gasses, which exceeded 900 degrees, Fahrenheit. When excavations began in 1709, diggers discovered the deposits reached a depth of 12 feet. This is also a story of the changing nature of excavations and conservation of remains from earliest digging when sites were looted of valuables and many skeletal remains inadvertently destroyed. Giuseppe Fiorelli made the breakthrough that if plaster casts of the skeletons were made, rather than removing them, much more accurate information about time and location of death, could be available. The effects of the eruption on nearby Herculaneum are described: though wind conditions allowed many residents to escape, subsequent eruptions leveled the city, depositing up to 65 feet of volcanic deposits, which during the l980s revealed over 300 skeletal remains. The book closes with a perplexing note: even though Vesuvius remains a potential threat, over l million people live in its vicinity today- a disaster waiting to happen? The elegant production job is sure to engage many curious child readers in a time period and event few will know until they are lucky enough to discover this book."

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books(December, 2005) 

"Ever since the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii were re-exposed in the eighteenth century, spectators have been morbidly fascinated by the remains and traces of victims caught at the instant of death. Deem looks at the disaster itself (which he revisits in considerably grim detail), at archaeological practices at the sites over time, and at tourists' experiences of the sites. This book also examines the evidence scientists use to reconstruct the deadly timeline of the A.D. 79 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and to determine why some fleeing or trapped citizens left skeletal remains, while others left fossil-style depressions from which the now famous plaster casts were made. Plentiful illustrations, the majority in black and white, are sharply reproduced and utterly captivating. Deem concludes with a chapter on the present state of neglect at the excavation and the peril which artifacts face now that they are exposed to the elements. A bibliography and index are included."

Horn Book (November/December, 2005)

"Both the title and the many photographs of skeletons and plaster casts of dead Pompeians are sure to attract readers to this account of the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in C.E. 79. Deem describes the earthquakes and eruptions that occurred over two days in late August, killing everyone who remained in the city and the surrounding region. He then chronicles the centuries of excavation efforts to uncover the city and its dead. Six chapters sketch a history of the various discoveries up to the present time. Deem doesn't provide much information about what Pompeii was like before the devastation, but the glimpses into several houses and locations (the House of the Golden Bracelet; the Garden of the Fugitives) and lives of individual residents are intriguing. ...this handsome introduction to the destruction of Pompeiiincludes a small map, a bibliography of adult sources, and an index."

Kirkus Reviews (October 15, 2005)  

"This fascinating exploration of the buried city of Pompeii begins with a recreation of the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius and ends with a snapshot of Pompeii today. In between are packed details of the various excavations that have led to our current knowledge of both the life and death of the city. Weaving in the contemporary account of Younger Pliny and the archaeological evidence, the narrative meticulously describes the effects of the various stages of the eruption on the inhabitants and the topography of Pompeii and its neighboring communities. The city's rediscovery receives equally careful coverage, a whole chapter covering Giuseppe Fiorelli's revolutionary technique of creating plaster casts of the victims from the cavities left by their bodies. Avoiding the opportunity to sensationalize, Deem's consistently respectful treatment places the humanity of the victims at the fore...."

2006 Orbis Pictus Outstanding Nonfiction Book 

"Under the looming shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, the residents of Pompeii became unexpected victims of an eruption that buried their city under twelve feet of volcanic ash on August 24–25, AD 79. With factual details gained from trips to the archeological site site, James Deem recaptures the annihilation of a prominent Italian city and chillingly reveals ongoing archeological discoveries through meticulous excavations of the past 250 years. Early attempts to reveal the mysteries of Pompeii focused on unearthing treasures and human skeletons. However, the process of forming plaster mummies, inspired by Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1863, captured the last living moment of those who died by suffocation. Through these plaster artifacts, Deem pieces together stories of individuals, families, households, and the lifestyle of this city of the Roman Empire. Outstanding archival photographs of human plaster casts and preserved homes and gardens accompany the reader on a visual and textual journey through Pompeii.An index, bibliography, informational inserts, and captions further document the power of the sleeping giant that still threatens one million residents today."

National Science Teachers Association and the Children's Book Council, Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K-12  

"This attractive...volume offers a deeper than usual coverage of the destruction of Pompeii by a volcano in the first century A.D. ...[L]etters from a Roman historian provide actual accounts of the timeline and the stages of the eruption, making this book appropriate as a supplement to Earth science content related to volcanism.... The book is ideal for the development of interdisciplinary thematic units, blending science, social studies, and geography in middle school.... A bibliography and index support further research."

Illinois Library Association Conference, Center for Children's Books (61 Books in 60 Minutes)

"This is an impressively thorough overview of the disastrous event itself (visited in grim detail) as well as archaeological practices at the sites over time, tourists' experiences of the sites, and the evidence scientists use to reconstruct the deadly timeline of the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius."

School Library Journal, Nonfiction Booktalker (March 2006)

"James M. Deem’s Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii (Houghton) is loaded with pictures of Pompeiian townsfolk caught at the moment of their deaths. On the morning of August 27, AD 79, a small cloud emanating from Mount Vesuvius formed over the Roman town of Pompeii. The residents weren’t worried until the cloud began to release ash and stones. The fallout continued at a rate of five to six inches per hour. By midnight, all the first floor buildings and windows were blocked with falling volcanic matter. Fires burned everywhere. Super-hot, super-fast gases roared down the mountainside. They did not reach Pompeii itself, but by 7:30 in the morning, it was over. Everyone who had not already escaped was killed, buried in various kinds of material from the volcano. Those bodies are not real mummies, but plaster images. In the 1700s diggers picked through the rubble of Pompeii. Their methods were not remotely scientific, and they stole most of the artifacts they found, but along with the treasures they discovered skeletons. In time, they found that they could fill the holes around the skeletons with plaster and create almost perfect images of what the residents of Pompeii looked like as they were dying. Deem shows us these unfortunate Romans, and gives us a little frisson of horror as we gaze in fascination at these ancient bodies." 

The Center for Children's Books, Around the World in 40 Books (December, 2006) 

"Pompeii , one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire , was destroyed within twenty-four hours on August 24, AD 79 . Centuries later archaeological excavations unearthed clues to the dwellers lives which lay buried under layers of volcanic rubble. Buildings, jewelry, treasures, and bodies were uncovered. Pictures of the excavations and maps of the area provide fascinating detail for readers."

School Library Journal, Curriculum Connections (November 2007)

"Kids...will be mesmerized by James M. Deem’s Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. Gripping, vividly written chapters provide a thorough recounting of the eruption; a summary of the city’s rediscovery by archeologists centuries later; descriptions of chillingly lifelike plaster casts taken of Vesuvius’s victims; heart-wrenching stories about people’s last moments, based on information gleaned from their remains; and events in nearby Herculaneum. Well-chosen, graphic photos and reproductions complete this riveting resource. "

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "Disasters!: An Extreme Dozen" (November 2007)

"Grim and gripping images highlight this overview of one of the most famous historical disasters and its subsequent archeological fate."

Strategies That Work (by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, Stenhouse Publishers, 2007)

"This up-to-date source on Pompeii pieces together stories of people's lives using the plaster casts and artifacts that have mesmerized young readers for years. Deem reminds us, too, that Vesuvius is a sleeping giant, which adds to the suspense and power of the story."


"Fascinating exploration of the buried city of Pompeii from the recreation of the eruption of Vesuvius to snapshots of Pompeii today."

Wilde Awards 2005 (Best Older Nonfiction) 

"The author writes clearly [about] the happening and history of the 79 AD eruption. Impressive photographs of plaster casts, maps, old photographs enhance the already dramatic happening." (

New Jersey Library Association, "Just the Facts: Nonfiction Trade Books for the Curriculum:

"Deem, a gifted storyteller, relates the devastating volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii, the discovery of the remains and the continuing scientific studies that are being done on the ruins and the artifacts. The many photos of long preserved places and bodies guarantee some avid readers."

Washington Library Media Association Conference, A Selective Bibliography of 2005 Nonfiction

"From the acclaimed author of Bodies From The Bog comes this introductory photo-essay that documents the story of the city of Pompeii and the disastrous volcano that immortalized its inhabitants." (May 2006):

"Photos! Maps! Original sources! Multiple Subjects! Do history books get better than this? Bodies From the Ash contains many stories. Pompeii: a Roman city during the early days of the Empire. It's also Pompeii: the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried a city and its people. And Pompeii: the science behind the bodies. And Pompeii: the evolution of archaeology from treasure hunting to science. Finally, Pompeii: the preservation and storage of artifacts.

"One of the things I have always loved about history is the ability to glimpse a different world. Because of the quick destruction of Pompeii, and the way the city was buried, Pompeii provides a unique look into the past. Because Pompeii was covered with dust, ash, gas, and stone, when the bodies of the dead decayed a space was left; when a space is found, plaster is poured in, resulting in detailed plaster casts. We can look on the faces of people who lived more than a thousand years ago. And the buildings were also preserved: we can see their homes, the graffiti on the walls; look at the possessions they chose to take when they tried to flee. Bodies from the Ash is about this history; but it also is about how the first people who realized the ancient city and its treasures were still intact dug holes not to discover the past but to get jewelry and statues. Afterwards came the realization that the plaster process could be done, and that what was below the surface was more valuable than jewels.

"All of these stories weave together into one narrative about life and death in Ancient Pompeii. This isn't about history that is dead and buried in the past; it's about history that is alive. It's alive in the unexcavated areas of the ancient city; in the ongoing pursuit to both explore the city and preserve what has been found; and in the still active nearby volcano. And it's photos! I could sit all day just looking at the photos and the maps, planning an imaginary trip to Pompeii to see the excavations for myself."

Reviews from Bookstores

Green Apple Books: "This is a new book for younger folk, though not for the faint hearted. It is a thorough look at the disaster of Mount Vesuvius and the annihilation of Pompeii, with fascinating photographs of the thousands of plaster bodies and the volcano itself. It brings light to a surreal and incomprehensible event in world history, and puts it all in perspective with a brief before-and-after history lesson. In a world where history lessons are not always most accessible to children, this book does a great job of drawing the reader in. With photographs like these, you can’t help but read the text around them to discover more."

Butterfly Books: "A fascinating book on a fascinating subject: what archaeologists have discovered about the lives and tragic deaths of the population of Pompeii at the time of the violent eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79.  Children and adults with an interest in archaeology, the Roman Empire, and/or the catastrophic effects of natural disasters will find much to learn and enjoy in this book."

Politics and Prose Bookstore "When Mt. Vesuvius erupted on August 24-25, AD 79, the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum were caught in the midst of daily activities. Many died instantly, others died while trying to flee. Their bodies and their cities were buried in twelve feet of ash, forgotten for centuries. The rubble of the buildings remained to be dug up and carefully reconstructed. But how could we learn about the people? The Bodies from the Ash had disintegrated, leaving only bones and hollow molds where the pumice had instantly hardened around the dead. Solution: fill the hollows with plaster. Result: Plaster casts or statues that seem to almost pulsate with the life, or death, of the people caught in the volcanic eruption. Author James M. Deem recreates the story of the last days of Pompeii and its archeological history. He enhances his narrative with many photographs, some not for the faint-hearted, of the plaster casts, skeletons in situ, archeological digs, and artifacts from Pompeii. Young historians, scientists, archeologists, and all who love a ripping good story will be captivated by this fascinating book.

Reviews from Newspapers

Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA) August 8, 2006): "James Deem explores more of the discoveries at Pompeii in Bodies from the Ash, a book for readers 10 and up. He includes eyewitness accounts of the horrific event from the likes of Pliny the Elder, who tried desperately to save some of the townspeople. He offers a fascinating explanation of how plaster casts of the bodies provide fine details, even including the expressions on the faces of the victims. Historic and contemporary photographs illustrate a richly detailed story filled with interesting tidbits--not least the fact that Vesuvius is still a danger to the more than one million people who live near it today."

Grand Rapids Press (March 12, 2006): "Kids love learning about erupting volcanoes, ancient civilizations and archeology. What could be better than a study of Pompeii? Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii, by James M. Deem, is the perfect fix for anyone wanting to know what exactly happened in A.D. 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted upon one of the Roman Empire's largest cities. The dramatic photos on every page will capture readers' interest, and the informative text will keep the pages turning. The author spent two years researching Pompeii, and this book shows his passion for the subject." 

News Sun (Waukegan, IL) Newspaper (December 16, 2005): "A richly illustrated book exploring the life and times of Pompeii and the events that led to its destruction."

Washington Post Book World Live (December 13, 2005): "...a fascinating look at archaeologists and how they work"

Washington Post (December 11, 2005): "In this sometimes grisly but always fascinating book, James M. Deem relates how archaeologists and other experts have documented what happened when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in Pompeii in 79 A.D."

Times Argus (Montpelier, VT)  (November 14, 2005): "This incredible book is loaded with photographs and up-to-date information, making it outstanding in every way."

 Reviews from Radio Programs

Salute to National Library Week Review, "Across the Fence" on WCAX (April 11, 2011):"Photographs and strong narrative text bring the volcanic explosion near Pompeii in 79 AD to life. A natural for young adventurers who want to know more."

 Reviews from Libraries

South Orange and Maplewood (NJ) School and Public Librarians "On the morning of August 24, AD 79, Mount Vesuvius began to erupt. Within 24 hours, the entire city of Pompeii and many of its 20,000 citizens were lost - until their remains were rediscovered hundreds of years later. Amazing photographs help illustrate this history of Pompeii."

South Sound Book Review Council "In this nicely-done book on the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the focus is on the bodies. Which is interesting, because technically, there are no bodies. After summarizing the events of the eruption, Deem outlines various excavations of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum over the years, some for archaeological reasons, others simply tomb raids. The speed and intensity of the pyroclastic flow instantly killed and buried thousands of people, leaving empty pockets after the bodies disintegrated. The plaster casts made of these "unbodies" reveal the last moments of the people of Pompeii in disturbing detail. A combination of historical records, archaeological evidence, vulcanology, and educated guessing allows scientists to piece together ideas of who these people were and what their final moments might have been like. Photographs of the dig sites and body casts, as well as additional illustrations such as a map, are numerous and well-chosen. Bibliography and index included. A good choice both for assignments and non-fiction pleasure reading."

Juneau Public Libraries "Thoroughly eerie and completely engrossing, this is the story of a few days in August, AD 79, when the thriving city of Pompeii was completely buried beneath many feet of pumice and ash. The city was rediscovered in 1748, and researchers and excavators put together the story of the city’s final days based on the bodies and artifacts found buried in the now rock-hard ash. Intertwined with the story of Pompeii is the equally sad story of the nearby town of Herculaneum, also destroyed without any survivors."

Central Rappahannock Regional Library "James Deem explores more of the discoveries at Pompeii in "Bodies from the Ash," a book for readers ten and up. He includes eyewitness accounts of the horrific event from the likes of Pliny the Elder, who tried desperately to save some of the townspeople. He offers a fascinating explanation of how plaster casts of the bodies provide fine details, even including the expressions on the faces of the victims. Historic and contemporary photographs illustrate a richly detailed story filled with interesting tidbits - not least the fact that Vesuvius is still a danger to the more than one million people who live near it today." 

Southern Maine Library District  "The author of Bodies From the Bog brings us more bodies—combining interesting prose with compelling photographs of the victims of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Then Deem moves beyond their plight, to incorporate the uncertain future of the eruption site as well."

 Reviews from Bloggers

INFODAD.COM: "One of the most devastating phenomena about whose effects modern humans have direct, incontrovertible evidence was the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24-25 in the year 79 C.E. Magnificent on one level and terrifying on another, the ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum and nearby areas provide amazing insight into the everyday lives – and the exact manner of the deaths – of thousands of residents of the Roman Empire at its height. James M. Deem’s Bodies from the Ash, originally published in 2005 and now available in paperback, is sobering and fascinating and an outstanding introduction to one of the world’s great archival sites. From the deadly eruption itself and its expulsion of “a mixture of rock fragments and gas that rolled over the ground at temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit,” eventually covering Pompeii with “more than twelve feet of volcanic debris,” to the rediscovery of the buried city in the mid-18th century, Deem explains what happened and what the results of the rediscovery were – not all of them positive: “Some tourists stole bones from the skeletons and other artifacts as souvenirs. …[O]f all the coins and jewelry found at the Villa of Diomedes, only two items have been preserved to this day: a necklace and a gemstone. The rest have disappeared without a trace.” Mount Vesuvius continues to have its effects: a funicular (a cable railroad in which ascending and descending cars balance each other) opened in 1880 to take tourists to the top of the mountain, but a 1944 eruption wrecked it beyond repair – although the book’s photos of it remain highly intriguing. Indeed, everything discovered in and about Pompeii and Herculaneum is amazing, with the plaster casts of people at the moment of their deaths the most involving, if morbid,  of all. The book is packed with photos of these casts, of the areas where they were found, and of modern archeologists exploring the city with a great deal more care than did the explorers of earlier times. Seeing the remains of the victims of the eruption is truly astonishing. There is the soldier whose sword remains prominently alongside his right leg, and the woman who died on the beach while carrying gold jewelry and wearing two wonderfully preserved rings. The silver hoard found in one house, the wine jugs in another, and the human remains everywhere, tell a story of mundane existence suddenly, dramatically and terrifyingly turned into an excavation for the ages to come. And Mount Vesuvius is not necessarily done with the area yet, as Deem points out: it is dormant, not extinct, and a million people now live in its vicinity and could become its next victims. Bodies from the Ash is a solemn reminder of the power of nature, a tremendously interesting foray into the past, and a warning of how much we still do not know about predicting, much less preventing, some of the greatest disasters that the Earth is capable of visiting upon humans and their settlements."

E. R. Bird ( "Having only just begun his examination of the ancient dead with, Bodies From the Bog (a title that bears more than a passing resemblance to a kitchy 1950s horror flick), Mr. James M. Deem returns to look at the ancient dead of an entirely new region. As a child I was fascinated by mummies and the bodies of human beings from so very long ago. History was never my favorite subject and often I found that unless I could see a person in the flesh (rotting, decomposing, flaking flesh though it might be) I was unable to understand how similar to us the people of the past were. Pompeii, naturally, is a fascinating subject in and of itself. How could it not be? You've three-dimensional images of people in the last throes of death. I challenge anyone to come up with anything half as gripping (i.e. feeding on our more macabre instincts) when talking about any other ancient civilization. With plenty of amazing photographs, clear concise writing, and a plot that will keep many a kid spellbound, this isprobably one of the finest non-fiction titles to grace library bookshelves in years.

" 'On August 24, the last Tuesday that they would live in their town, the people of ancient Pompeii awoke to a typical hot summer's morning.' And we're off! No long drawn out Preface on why Deem wrote this book or dull page long sermon on the history of archeology itself. Nope. Instead we are treated to a highly accurate encapsulation of the events that lead up to Mount Vesuvius erupting and the good people of Pompeii perishing. With some reliance on the accounts of Pliny Jr., Deem tells us what happened on August 24 and 25, A.D. 79. There's even a timetable of events marking the different stages in the eruption. With everyone dead and buried beneath different amounts of ash, Deem then looks at the consequential rediscovery of this once bustling town. We learn how in 1709 a group of diggers found the nearby town of Herculaneum and plundered it of its riches. Pompeii wasn't found until 1748 when discovering the city was something akin to a treasure hunt. For the tourists, skeletons found were set up in dramatic tableaux. Then, around 1860, our hero Guiseppe Fiorelli had the previously inconceivable notion that maybe someone should try preserving Pompeii and its bodies. When people came across hollow areas in the ash, it was Fiorelli who had the brilliant idea to pour plaster into the holes and create life sized statues of what the people in their last moments looked like. The rest of the book discusses the fate of the plaster casts, what we've learned about the residents of Pompeii, and the interesting stories found in the nearby town of Herculaneum. The book ends with the sorry state of current Pompeii excavation and a call for people to make note of the swift decomposition of what we've already found.

"Knowing perfectly well that Pompeii alone does not a children's non-fiction text make, Deem's decision to talk about Herculaneum as well was an intelligent choice. Admittedly the book isn't subtitled, "Life and Death Around Mt. Vesuvius", but who cares? Herculaneum offers just as much useful information and rather exciting drama (provided, of course, by the skeletons) as the titular city itself. Most impressive though is Deem's writing. He never talks down to his audience, but at the same time he has an acute ear for timing. Some non-fiction books for kids are great but just go on and on and on. I loved "The Tarantula Scientist" by Sy Montgomery but it definitely could've stood Body From the Ash's editor. No chapter in this book seems out of place or awry. It's a well-honed little series of images and words that will grip many an unsuspecting reader.

"It seems to me that Deem must have carefully weighed just how grisly to get. For example, at one point we see a cast of a teenage girl taken from Oplontis, an area outside of Pompeii. The girl was made by pouring wax rather than plaster into the cavity. From that they made a mold and a final plaster casting. On the plus side, the technique is the most lifelike view of a victim of Vesuvius yet. On the down side, it's incredibly disturbing. According the photo credits hidden on the publication page, Deem took this picture himself as authorized by the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Environment. He must have taken very great care to give viewers a clear enough look of the body to let them know how gruesome and realistic it was. At the same time, he's far enough away and at an awkward enough an angle that child readers, for all they want to be, won't be too grossed out. By and large, the book is all about dying people, so there's not a whole heckuva lot you can do about that. Fortunately, each shot is tastefully presented while remaining exploitative enough for youthful palates.

"And talk about stunning images. Some non-fiction texts skimp on the images. Deem went so far as to personally visit Pompeii himself and get permission to photograph buildings closed to the general public. He even got his hands on the Pompeii photography archive, thereby getting some pretty keen shots of early archaeological excavations and artifacts. Some are in color (as with the incredibly impressive image of the Herculaneum Ring Lady) and some in black and white but every single one is gripping. If you didn't want to go to Pompeii before reading this book, you may now simply from looking at the images.

"But don't ask me. Hand this book to a kid assigned a non-fiction book for a school book report. Slyly slip it to the child looking for mummy books and who hasn't had their fill. Pompeii has many charms, but its greatest may be how kid friendly it is. Some parents may shy away from having their children deal with a subject so gruesome, but for all those budding forensic scientists out there, few books will satiate them quite as well as "Bodies From the Ash". Lively lovely work." (

Book Barker: "In this book about the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the focus is on the bodies. Which is interesting, because technically, there are no bodies. After a basic summary of the day of the eruption, Deem outlines a few excavations of buried Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum over the years; some were undertaken for noble archaeological reasons, others simply to grab stuff. The focus, however, is on those who died. The speed and intensity of the pyroclastic flow (one of my favorite terms- look it up) instantly killed and buried thousands of people, leaving empty, body-shaped pockets (Antibodies? Unbodies?) after the bodies disintegrated to nothing but bones. My dance and movement-trained sister might call it negative space. The plaster casts made of the non-body holes in hardened ash reveal the last moments of the people (and dogs) of Pompeii in disturbing detail. A combination of historical records, archaeological evidence, vulcanology (no, not Spock), and educated guessing allows scientists to piece together theories of who these people were and what their final moments might have been like. I've been fascinated with Pompeii ever since it was the cover story in an issue of National Geographic World when I was a kid. Natural disaster, mystery, and gruesome evidence: non-fiction doesn't get much better than that." (

Kiddie Lit: "This is a perfect book to give to teens who don't understand the need to narrow your focus when writing a research paper. Deem could have talked about the history of Pompeii, the Roman Empire and Pompeii's part in it, the later effects of the eruption of Vesuvius on Roman life, etc., etc., etc. He even could have widened his focus to life in Pompeii before the eruption, but he doesn't. His gaze is fixed solely on what occurred during and immediately following the eruption. His information is drawn from the multiple excavations which took place at Pompeii and at Herculaneum, another city destroyed in the eruption. The best part of this book is that he tells, and shows, the reader the effects of the eruption on the people in the town through the plaster casts made from the cavities many of the bodies left. The book is full of photos of these casts and they can't help but move you. As a dog lover, I was especially saddened by the guard dog, whose final twistings and turnings in agony were caught forever in the hot ash which surrounded him. Deem, while writing with the clear-eyed voice of a scientist, is never less than respectful of the dead as he tells of the bodies and what their plaster casts and their skeletons reveal about the life they led. A soldier is found and his skeleton shows signs of battle. The skeleton of a teenage girl, with scarred arm bones from carrying loads too heavy for her 14-year-old frame, proves that she was a slave. A short book, but that doesn't make it any less well-written, any less moving, or any less powerful. Readers: ages 9-15; This is a good reluctant reader book. The photographs are numerous enough and gripping enough to keep the attention. The writing is easy to follow, but not dumbed down in any way." (

Rinda M. Byers: "The picture book from Houghton, Mifflin, is “Bodies From The Ash:  Life and Death In Ancient Pompei,” by James Deem, and it has got to be one of the most beautifully designed and beautifully written nonfiction picture books that I’ve seen in a very long time.  I will admit to a bias for black and white photography, but rarely have I ever seen it fit a subject so well, and rarely, again, have I ever seen it done so well in such a short form for younger children.  The carefully chosen, superb, black and white photos with grayed areas, many of them photos of the bodies and casts of bodies excavated from the ancient Pompei site, made me remember what it was like to travel up from Oregon back to Seattle, just after Mount St. Helens blew up.  It was so green and so lovely on the trip down.  On the way, back, everything was covered with ash, all gray and black and white, and it was so dusty that it was hard to see to drive on the highway.  It was like being in some awful, surreal horror movie. The book made me remember that experience, and, so, it also made me feel a little bit what it was like to maybe have been close to or even in a volcanic eruption. 

"The dark red and green and gold in the cover accented the photos in a rich way.  I also liked the lack of white space around the photos in the book.  I am so sick of photos isolated on white paper just stuck anywhere on the page in nonfiction for children.  I’m also sick of so many distracting sidebars in nonfiction picture books especially.  There were only a few sidebars in this book, maybe one or two at most to a page in this book, and they were delineated with soft blocks of grayed colors—again a very nice touch.  These did not confuse me or distract from the main story but instead subtly accented and enlarged it.  I thought the author did an excellent job of conveying a sense of the difficulties in excavating and reconstructing sites like this.  You got a good sense of how different scientists interpret things differently and how they came to certain conclusions in reconstructing the disaster.  There’s a detailed description of Vesuvius and how it erupted and what happened before, during, and after the eruption on the mountain--enough to fully satisfy small volcano enthusiasts.  The discussions of individual bodies made the people of Pompeii seem very real, very human. 

"In conclusion, what I liked best about this book was that I came away with a sense that the entire book had been very lovingly and carefully done specifically for a younger audience, and it did a superb job.  I would not have thought, sight unseen and book unread, that a book on this traumatic and dreary subject could excite me so much.  The ten-year-old boy, to whom I offered the book to look at, shared my excitement.  It was fun to watch him respond to the book!  I enjoy giving a good book to a young person and watching he or she react with pleasure like that.  Very satisfying.  The ladybug rating for this book is a 6."


James M Deem

Copyright © 1988-2018 James M Deem. All Rights Reserved.

Prisoners of Breendonk by James M Deem