Wicked history

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Terry Deary's Roman rotters and Tudor terrors are joined by more horrible rogues this year, reports Colin Hynson

Ten years have passed since the first titles in the Horrible Histories series were published. The arrival in June 1993 of the Terrible Tudors and the Awesome Egyptians started a phenomenon in children's history books and since then more than six million books in the series have been sold in the UK, while translations have been made for sales in more than 20 countries.

Two years ago the Horrible Histories accounted for 17 of the top 20 children's non-fiction books borrowed from our libraries.

Given the enthusiasm for these books among children it is natural that teachers should look for ways to exploit them in their lessons. The "horrible" element that makes them a must-have book for children means they are difficult to use in the classroom, but they can make a difference to many pupils by making history more interesting and reading more exciting.

And yet author Terry Deary says that the prospect of his books being used in school fills him with horror. He fears that if his books become part of the mainstream they will lose their anti-authoritarian attraction. He's very critical of the educational system. He avoids classrooms and does not consult teachers about his books. He maintains that "schools don't teach children to think for themselves, they teach them to pass tests and get up the league tables".

So why do teachers flout the author's own opinion and bring his books into the classroom? Trevor Ellis, history co-ordinator at Colman Middle School in Norwich, owns up to his copies of the Horrible Histories but certainly not as set books. He doesn't much like the standard paperback format and he also believes "the content is too extreme and does not allow pupils to either build up a complete picture or to view trends within history". But he does regard the books as a "treat" for the pupils. Make them everyday and they lose their appeal, says Trevor, but keep them available in the classroom and they'll help lever reluctant readers and indifferent historians into a particular subject.

As the books touch on areas that are not included in mainstream texts, teachers may use them either for reading around a subject or for material for activities such as an end-of-term quiz. The content of the Horrible Histories also makes them attractive as background for project work for pupils. John Hirst, head of humanities at Springwood High School in King's Lynn says The Rotten Romans provided the basis for his Year 7 group's project work on Invaders and Settlers.

While the books may be used to motivate pupils struggling to keep up, they can also be used as extension texts for the more able pupils. According to the website of Breckenbrough School in North Yorkshire: "When pupils have completed the set task in a lesson to a satisfactory standard they might be offered some extension work. However, invariably the pupils are not enthusiastic about this. Rather than trying to enforce this and running the danger of disaffecting the pupil, pupils are allowed the opportunity to do something relevant such as reading. The Horrible Histories are particularly popular."

This year CITV is broadcasting a new drama series based on the books, the BBC is releasing an audio version and a fortnightly magazine using the Horrible Histories format has recently been launched by Eaglemoss (www.eaglemoss.co.uk).

To celebrate the second decade of the Horrible Histories, Scholastic is publishing several new titles. An "awful anniversary" Terrible Tudors book with playing card pack will be published later this month (pound;4.99).

Look out for a new title, Ruthless Romans in July (pound;3.99), and a hardback Wicked History of The World (pound;12.99) in October, with a pull-out Rogue's Gallery.

For details of the Terry Deary National Roadshow, running April 22-May 2, as well as a national competition to become Horrible Histories Brainiest Boffin, running in major bookshops from March, watch Scholastic's website www.scholastic.co.uk

Colin Hynson is education officer, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

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