Alphabetically speaking, this week’s author should be Roald Dahl; but I guessed that the most famous twentieth-century children’s writer in the world probably doesn’t need the extra exposure. I might just draw your attention to the well-managed Official Roald Dahl website, www.roalddahl.com (with fun activities as well as guides to the books), and the much-loved Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden, Bucks, www.roalddahlmuseum.org , and also point out that book clubs such as www.thebookpeople.co.uk and www.redhouse.co.uk very often have outstanding offers on Roald Dahl collections.
Arguably, Terry Deary doesn’t need the exposure either. Horrible Histories have conquered the world, first in book form, then as (slightly disappointing) cartoons and finally as fast-moving TV tongue-in-cheek costume dramas (add silly songs and shake vigorously). There are some twenty-three chronological titles from Savage Stone Age to Blitzed Brits, half a dozen Handbooks (Knights, Pirates, Spies and the like), ten or so Specials (national histories of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, or thematic histories of royalty or revolution) and Gruesome Guides to popular destinations such as London, Edinburgh, York and Dublin. Deary is the tenth-most-borrowed children’s author from UK libraries, and has sold over 25 million Horrible Histories titles alone in over 40 countries around the world.
If I seem alarmingly well-informed, it’s because my son – and millions like him – caught Horrible Histories like something between a virus and an addiction. Our complete set is probably better-thumbed and in worse shape than even the library’s, and whilst both his parents like or need to be reasonably well-informed about history, said son has been able to outquote us on obscure historical facts for several years now. (He also quickly learned the ways of the ghastly historical pun: “Pocket money,” claims the Artful-Dodger type relieving the well-dressed gentleman of his small change in Villainous Victorians… and that’s only the cover; the book steps up the rate page by page.)
The thing is, Terry Deary hated school, and he hated history lessons more than anything else. As a matter of principle, he won’t do school visits, and there is a fabulous irony in the fact that thousands of schools now love Deary as much as he loathes them. (Of course, Terry Deary’s schools were in another, darker time of serried desks, scrubbed splintery classrooms and joyless, gown-wearing, cane-wielding teachers all called Sir; he might feel rather differently if he met some of the thoughtful, professional, trouble-taking, encouraging teachers I know.) Horrible Histories is his revenge, a kind of Trojan Horse sneaking irreverence, fun and insanely memorable facts and insights – including a few timely demolition jobs on received historical wisdom – into the forbidding, chokingly dusty library of traditional History. I don’t think Michael Gove is a fan.
A caution: Horrible Histories of course does what it says on the packet, and while the style is very accessible to any keen reader of 7+, some of the gory detail finds this reader of 40+ a little squeamish – especially with regard to Scottish history, which it must be said is particularly grisly if you look too far below the lid of the shortbread tin. Clan battles, witch trials, public executions, Resurrection men – no pulpy detail is spared. Granted, the son – who is prostrated by even a paper cut on his own person – has much less of a problem with this than I do.
With which, I really meant to write about Deary’s rather lesser-known fiction, starting with the 20+ Egyptian Tales, Roman Tales and so on, through to Victorian Tales, written for developing readers (5-7 year olds). This is a tricky age-bracket: readers haven’t the stamina for full-length books, but parents (let’s be honest) are reluctant to pay four or five pounds for what appears to be a very slim volume, easily read through in an hour or so. Many publishers, knowing this, are a little lazy on both counts: short books seem to be written without much spark or care, and publishers chase the sales associated with established TV characters or recycled literary ones. All credit to Deary for writing pacy, accessible short chapter books which allow readers to explore different periods in history with a real sense of the time but without the slightest didactic tone: a masterclass in “show, don’t tell”. All credit, too, for recognising the appeal of history even for beginner readers, without the patronising assumption that it will be too unfamiliar and too difficult. (And if you still feel £5 is a lot to pay for a short book, you should know that the Kensington Library in particular has a good selection for borrowing.)
Deary went on to explore fiction for slightly older readers, such as the eight Gory Stories which use a factual armature for a pacy period drama: Egyptian grave-robbers, Tudor tricksters, Victorian villains… Occasional interventions from the author (helpfully pictured as a white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed chap) explain historical peculiarities, tease with plot hints or comment on the deep stupidity of certain key characters – or (frequently) the ghastliness of school through the ages. It’s a very effective way of making the story manageably bite-sized, passing on essential information and keeping the tone friendly and chatty; and, perhaps most importantly, giving Deary space to develop some impossibly convoluted plots and bravura descriptions, from the sweaty lowlife of Ancient Egypt to the sooty scavengers of Victorian Edinburgh.
The Fire Thief trilogy sees Deary pull off a brilliant mash-up between Greek myth and nineteenth-century reality in the mythical Eden City (which sounds a lot like a downer, dirtier New York). Titan Prometheus has contrived to free himself from his mountain prison after two hundred years of daily torture and nightly rebirth. His torturer, the eagle-shaped Fury, isn’t happy, but Prometheus’ cousin Zeus is inclined to give him one last chance. All Prometheus has to do is to keep out of the Fury’s sight and find a genuine hero among his beloved humans. How could it possibly take him an entire trilogy to do that – are true heroes really so rare?
Master Crook’s Academy, meanwhile, introduces Deary’s ideal school (yes, it exists): a shadowy enterprise in the North of England where a select few are trained in the arts of burglary, robbery, kidnapping and safe-cracking. Master Crook himself is never seen and seldom heard, but displays a certain Robin Hood streak: desperate mothers are sent away with golf sovereigns in their purses, whilst his spectacular heists set out to fleece the rich and heartless, and the Academy’s students learn unlikely new skills in ever more resourceful ways. As ever, Deary excels in Gothic plotting and atmospheric description, while a cheeky rat provides the historical references and triumphantly terrible gags.
I have barely covered a half of Deary’s prolific output (somewhere around 250 books): among his more recent publications, there’s the thoughtful Second World War drama Put Out the Light, unfolding simultaneously in Sheffield and Dachau and nominated for the 2012 Carnegie Medal. Deary has declared an aim of concentrating on adult and young adult fiction from now on; in the meantime, for millions of children he has rescued history from its own dustbin – and if it’s a little bloodier and grubbier than the grown-ups remember, it’s unquestionably more vivid and more fun, too.