New territory

14th November 2003 at 00:00
The author of 'Hawksmoor' has started writing history - and prehistory - for children. Sean Lang asked him why

Voyages through Time: The Beginning (illustration right) Escape from Earth By Peter Ackroyd DK, pound;14.99 each

Taking on a series of history books to cover the story of the planet from the Big Bang to the Moon landings would be daunting for most writers, but Peter Ackroyd seems to take it in his stride. No stranger to writing non-fiction or to spanning the centuries, the biographer of Dickens and Blake has embarked on this, his first foray into writing for children, with obvious enthusiasm. He loved reading as a child, and was as happy devouring the children's encyclopaedias of Arthur Smee as he was the adventure stories of Kipling and Jules Verne. This childhood sense of wonder at the world and its story helped him set the tone in presenting the same thing to a new generation.

A passionate supporter of children's reading, Ackroyd sees no reason why children's writers, even in information books like these, should not aspire to the highest literary standards, and he is clearly setting a lead he hopes others will follow. Certainly his text is unusually vivid for a series of information books. "The cloak of secrecy that surrounded any Soviet mission" prevents Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, from telling even her mother about her mission; "the time span for the whole evolution of humankind is no more than a pinprick at the apex of the Great Pyramid, a lick of paint on the top girder of the Eiffel Tower".

The idea for the series came from publishers DK. Editor Miriam Farbey says DK were looking for strong narrative and more personality in their non-fiction, but could not think of a major professional historian who was writing for children and who might fit the bill, so they turned to Peter Ackroyd. Ackroyd was surprised to be asked, but clearly relished the opportunity.

Unusually, DK designed the books around Ackroyd's text rather than vice versa, and the results are impressive. The books are strikingly illustrated: The Beginning, covering the prehistoric era, achieves a good balance between bones and fossils and reconstructions of what these dinosaurs and hominids may have looked like. Ackroyd's text is well researched, up to date and strong on authoritative detail: any teacher can use these books with full confidence.

One of the advantages for Ackroyd of being a celebrated author is that he has been allowed the freedom to choose the subjects that interest him most - no national curriculum agenda here. After these initial titles covering the beginning and end of the human story, there are to be volumes on the Aztecs and on the Egyptians - good class project material - with China and Russia in the pipeline, eventually making a series of 10 books covering as much of human history as he can fit in. Ackroyd does not mind too much what history children learn so long as they learn a lot of it: "history", he says, "is the most important subject for any child"; children need the powerful sense of their past and of their inheritance that only history can give them. He believes strongly in the importance of the interplay between past and present that characterises his own writing and although, understandably, he would not recommend his fiction for young readers, he thinks they might like to explore some of his biographical work - Dickens, or Blake, or his award-winning London: the Biography. The important thing, he says, is not to write down for children, nor to make any particular change in style or tone, but to treat them simply as readers, to be educated and inspired.

Sean Lang is editor of Modern History Review and a part-time history teacher in Cambridge

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