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Horrible Histories: Author Terry Deary on being ‘a fish out of water’

Author Terry Deary has a pretty good idea of why his Horrible Histories series is so popular.

“The problem with non-fiction books is they’re written by experts who wouldn’t know a child if it jumped up and bit them on the kneecap,” he says.

“The reason Horrible Histories has been a success is I’m a fiction author. I published 50 fiction books before I turned to Horrible Histories.”

It’s true, Deary’s imaginative style has now taught several generations of children history in a way that is playful and engaging – something that delights parents almost as much as it does their children.

The author has been described by The Radio Times as “a man whose scatological, cartoonish but utterly factual style has put a firework under British history books”.

So you might assume that after writing more than 60 Horrible Histories books and seeing them adapted into West End shows, a Bafta-winning TV series, a major film and an art exhibition, Deary would firmly consider himself part of the literary elite.

He doesn’t.

“In the publishing industry, I’m a fish out of water,” he says. “I don’t do literary festivals. And I don’t mix with the literati.”

“Who goes to literary festivals? They are attended by parents whose children enjoy books. My target is children who don’t read books. The sort of kids I grew up with. Going to a literary festival isn’t going to reach new readers.”

Which raises the question of how to break that cycle and capture that audience. “Through television. Cinema. Going to heritage sites,” replies Deary. “Book clubs where they go around schools and sell books, and the children go and look at them and are given tokens. Get books into the hands of children, and let them be the judges.

“Whereas literary festivals very often go for the names. ‘Oh, Julia Donaldson is a star name – if we get her, it’s a little feather in our book festivals cap.’ They compete with each other. It’s a game that I don’t play.”

  • Horrible Histories books ‘naturally came to an end’

Indeed, Deary rejects many things that would traditionally come with being part of that literary game. He doesn’t want a knighthood. He won’t appear on Desert Island Discs.

Deary’s background, he says, is what marks him out as an anomaly in literature. He was born in a poverty-stricken area of Sunderland in 1946. His mother was a clothes shop manager, his father a butcher. Books were not part of the culture he grew up in, and as result there was a perception that northern boys didn’t become writers.

“I only know one northern children’s writer now,” he says – singling out Skellig author David Almond.

“There are 100 southern middle-class women [writing books]. And it’s business. Southern middle class girls read books. So the publishers publish books for them. Northern working class lads don’t read books, so why bother publishing books for them?”

The new stage show, Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain – Part Four, opens at London’s Apollo Theatre this week and runs until the end of the month – perfectly timed to catch the English school summer holidays.

This show is written and directed by Deary’s regular collaborator Neal Foster. Deary himself is busy working on next year’s show. Of all the platforms Horrible Histories has been adapted for, theatre is the one he feels most comfortable with.

“I don’t want to sound pretentious, but as a professional actor, where I started, I took my theatre experience into books. So going back into theatre is the easiest and most direct way I can think of. They’re planning to do an escape room. Horrible History themed. You heard of them? I can’t script that because it’s not in my cultural background, but theatre is.

“In the TV series, the director said, ‘we can’t do the Holocaust’. But I did in the books. And so the books can still do things that television can’t because of sensitivities. I understand that, but I don’t know the rules [of TV]. In theatre, I’ve done so many plays down the years I know what I can get away with.”

The latest stage adaptation of the books covers a lot of ground – Samuel Pepys, Richard III, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and The Romans all feature.

“And there are things you don’t expect,” says Deary. “Like the English army mutiny against Henry VIII. Why did [the army] do that? Because they didn’t get beer. And that is a human story.”

During Henry VIII’s reign, 7,000 English soldiers were sent to Northern Spain to help Henry’s father-in-law, King Ferdinand, conquer the kingdom of Navarre from the French. But when the soldiers found they couldn’t get any beer in Spain, only wine or cider, they mutinied. It’s these kinds of stories that delight Deary.

“You imagine that somebody going to war is thinking, ‘I’m going to die for my king and country’? No, I’m doing it because it’s a job. And if I don’t get properly paid, I’m going home, which shifts your perspective of cultural expectations, which is great.”

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