I have a confession to make. When I’m writing an essay and I’m searching for a little nugget of information to make my work stand out – what I’ve come to refer to as a ‘foreskin of Christ’ since seeing The History Boys – I often turn to Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories. I adore them. My first titles, Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians, were purchased via a Scholastic catalogue, if memory serves, handed out at my middle school waaay back in the early 90s. I fell utterly and completely.
Horrible Histories are sold to young readers as ‘history with the boring bits left out’. I hate to break it to you, dear reader, but this is a Big Fat Lie. Horrible Histories are NOT history with the boring bits left out, they’re history with the boring bits cunningly disguised as exciting bits. That’s not to say that they don’t include the more acceptable elements, the bits that your history teacher thinks are important; you will still learn the names and deaths of the wives of Henry VIII, you will still learn that life in the trenches of WWI was as dangerous for soldiers as life out of them, but you will also learn that during WWII left-over bones were collected as a source of nitroglycerine for explosives, glue for aircraft and fertilizer for crops, and that Victorian baby farmers used gin (and infanticide) to silence their young charges. The dates and names are all there, but they’re presented in such a way that they really are made interesting.
Terry Deary has hit the nail on the head as far as getting children interested in history goes. The alliterative titles and irreverent, comic-like illustrations care of Martin Brown, Mike Phillips and Philip Reeve alert potential audiences to the fact that these are not your average curriculum-supporting materials. The mix of black humour with hard fact, games, quizzes (compete with upside down answer keys) and short stories, along with a good smattering of gore, keeps the series wildly entertaining, which has the knock-on effect of keeping the factual content in little heads.
In recent years the world of Horrible Histories has expanded to include countless books, a stage play, an interactive website, video games and a BAFTA winning half-hour sketch show made by the BBC.
‘Anyone can make history,’ quoth Oscar Wilde, ‘only a great man can write it’. Terry Deary has written the hell out of it.