Blast from the Past: Is Horrible Histories Still Worth A Read?

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Horrible Histories Has Exploded In Popularity Recently

It's always been there in the background, but nowadays what with the hugely successful live-action CBBC series, touring shows and more, I decided to sit down and crack open one of my old books and take a look at how well the original Horrible Histories series had really aged. Are they still decent books for teaching kids history, or are the recent catchy songs and funny sketches of the Tv series (and a good dose of nostalgia) just distracting us from books that really should have died in the 90s?

Seriously though, the series is flipping fun.

To Test This Out, I Picked Up My Old 1998 Copy of Bloody Scotland.

I decided that the best way to see whether Horrible Histories stands up to the test of time was to pick a subject I know absolutely nothing about (Scottish history) and see if I could learn something as well as being entertained. As I'm now an adult -[IknowRightHowDidThatHappen?!] - I know I'm not exactly the target audience, but at their core these books were always about offering an entry into learning about a certain period of history by giving you what you really want - gore and weirdness! 

My Little Collection At Home
Gettin' Gory

When I came back to these I thought that the focus on the gore and weirdness would be a huge turn-off and it would be that focus which would age these books badly. I had visions of the York and London Dungeons experience, where bad actors lunge at you with plastic hearts and describe in excruciating detail horrific torture techniques, trying to get a rise out of you. As a kid, with limited life experience and a taste for the macabre that is all imagination it's fascinating and there's a bloodthirsty curiosity and pleasure about it all. But when you're older and life's managed to carve a bit more empathy into you, the ghoulish displays are- more often then not- just genuinely repulsive and kind of upsetting. Because, you know, real people went through it all.
The good news? Horrible Histories really is a lot more than lists of gory goings on.
Sure, Bloody Scotland  has 'bloody' in the title for a reason and in the pages you can find plenty of strange and bloodthirty facts to whet your appetite. For example in the 'Funny food, cwaint customs and sporran sports' chapter it describes games such as Hurley Hacket (where you sled down a hill on a dead horses' jawbone) and Twisting the Cow (a game where you literally race to twist the legs off a dead cow), all accompanied by the brilliant little illustrations by Martin Brown that we all know and love. There are plenty of gruesome stories; such how corpses were dug up to be brought to trail, how a nobleman with an interest in dentistry would pay peasants to pull out their teeth, and how the witch trials used torture to illicit false confessions; but they are handled with a sense of humor that eases their impact and yet manages to point out just how wrong-headed and bizarre the logic behind the acts were. It peaks the curiosity but, in the end, doesn't really feel exploitative. Most importantly, Terry Deary's Horrible Histories know just when to take a step back and criticise the truly awful with a little more weight, such as when describing the horrible unfairness and cruelty of the Highland Clearances.
Which brings me to my next point...

Is Horrible Histories Actually Good History?

It would be so easy to create a series of books like Horrible Histories, which is in the end based on anecdotal tid-bits of history, and not bother trying to make something coherent and educational. If you're mainly drawing people in through quirky illustrations and a promise to make a rude joke about Scots wearing no knickers, then why do anything else than give them what they want?  In reality, while Horrible Histories will always lean towards picking out the most sensational details and running with them, and while it's never going to be academic in tone, I was pleasantly surprised by how often Deary tried to work historical balance into these kid's books. Check out the excerpt below:

That right there is historical balance. It's only a bullet point, but it sets up an important point for any kid that's interesting in learning about history: that the past has biases, that the people who write about it have their own agendas, and that heros are rarely ever pure heros, no matter how cool they might sound.

Bloody Scotland is a really great example of Deary showing decent history by being balanced in other ways, as in this book he reminds kids that even he - the author - isn't 100% unbiased, or even the best person to teach about certain types of history. He impressed me by making it clear that he was an Englishman writing about Scottish history and as a result he checked his privilege as being a member of the nationality of people who often would warp written history to make them out as the good guys, and who has been pretty bloody nasty to the Scots. It was honest and frank and still with his usual sense of humour (after all, he says with his tongue in his cheek, he's going to keep writing about Scottish history anyway). It was something that he didn't need to put in to this book, but which makes a big difference in teaching kids history well.

As well as some acknowledgement about the academic discipline of decent history, the way the books are structured is also pretty informative, working to a rough chronology that's summarised at the beginning of the chapter and then walked through in more detail. While there is a little flexibility within themes, all in all the books walk you through the past, so you can see where certain political movements and mentalities actually come from, and each past chapter helps you in learning more about the next chapters. Neat.

Is Horrible Histories Still An Entertaining Read?

Ok guys, I'm going to break it to you. Take a deep breath now.
The jokes are a little naff.
I know, I know! I loved them too! As a kid they were really funny and whenever they mentioned putting your teacher into a trebuchet or whatever we all gave a little cackle of glee thinking 'aw yeah, this guy gets us!'. Needless to say as a grown up they're just pretty formulaic and obvious and you read them waiting for a pause and canned laughter to start. But, you know what? They're still fun, and they still add something special to the whole mix.

Plus Martin Brown's illustrations are just really brilliant.
Brown's got his own art style that just screams 'Horrible Histories', and it elevates each joke with the way he knows how to balance cartoony gore with cynical characters and it's just fab. In my old childhood collection one of my favourite books was 'Greek Legends' (because I, like apparently every child on the planet, was a nut for Greek mythology), but for one reason or another Martin Brown wasn't the illustrator. While the replacement has his own style, the whole feel of the book suffered as a result even though it had some of the funniest and most imaginative content in the whole series.

So with naff jokes in tow and with Martin Brown as the second in command of the HMS Horrible Histories, how does the writing of the captain of this ship fare? The answer - pretty darn well. Terry Deary really seems to know how to teach history to kids in a way that will keep them (and even us older readers) engaged and entertained. He knows how to pick interesting topics but the key here is how he tells them. As well as the straight up anecdotes of interesting history that are just told to us, the book also explains history creatively by including made up letters by fictional witnesses to historical events, quizzes, quotes, exercises to try at home, character profiles,timelines, fact sheets, bizarre sports analogies, literary extracts and of course plenty of little funny comics. Deary does a great job of making you want to learn more, and packs a whole lot into these short books without making them feel cluttered, which is no mean feat. All in all even as a grown up you're sure to find fun and interest in the way he tells his history.
(Plus Terry Deary at least used to answer his fan mail. Which absolutely made my year when, like a big old nerd, many years back I wrote to him to tell him how awesome Wicked Words was for me as a kid and how he inspired me to go to uni to learn history. He just genuinely seems like a really nice guy. So there's that.)

Without Horrible Histories, for example, we may have never
known just how awful William McGonagall's poetry was.

So, In conclusion, Is Horrible Histories Still Worth It's Salt?


No matter what your age, you can still get a good dose of fun and information out of Horrible Histories and they're genuinely really useful as an interesting in-road into topics of history that you may never have learnt about before. If you've left it a decade or two since you read one or if you (*gasp!*) have never read one before, I thoroughly recommend that you get your behind out there and pick up a copy of this classic series. 

Aw go on then. Have another video to play us out.

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1 comment:

  1. Good to know they still hold up!

    I'm pretty certain I still have some around and about, as I was a wee bit obsessed with them back in the day. Was very fond of The Slimy Stuarts (because reasons).

    As for Deary, he does have views on education and public libraries I think are questionable at best, but if you can seperate the work from the man, it managed to make apathetic schoolkids interested in history. At least, until the curriculum tried to burn out any and all love for the subject under a relentless obsession with tests and targets. Whoops, soapboxing.