It will come as horrible news to generations of children with a renewed hunger for history. After 20 years and book sales of more than 25 million, the anti-teacher and master of alliteration behind publishing’s most unlikely franchise appears to have called it a day.
Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories children’s books, says the market for his mission to bring the past to life with comedy and “the nasty bits left in” has reached “saturation point.” But he leaves behind a still-growing empire including a CBBC series as popular with parents as children, games, stage adaptations and a YouTube channel.
The writer’s grand project started when his publisher requested a joke book with a history theme. Inspired by his unhappy schooling and poor grades in history (an E at A-level) he delivered the opposite.
The Awesome Egyptians and Terrible Tudors led to more than 60 titles (Blitzed Brits, Incredible Incas, you get the idea). My cousin, Jasmine, 19, started collecting them aged nine. The Tudor book was her favourite “because of the wives. Also the beheading and stuff”.
She adds via Facebook (naturally): “History was so boring at primary school that I can’t even remember what we learned. But I would sit for hours reading those books and sharing the best bits with my mum.
“He made the characters seem like they could have been real people. He gave them flaws and made them crack jokes. But at the same time you remembered the important bits.”
Key to success has been Deary’s broader appeal to parents and teachers. Ian Gerrard, my old history teacher and now head of the subject at Blackheath High School in south-east London, says the books “have played a huge part in revitalising children’s interest in history. I’ve used clips from the show and bits of books a lot in lessons and the kids absolutely love them.”
Not that Deary evidently cares a great deal for old Mr Gerrard. The son of a Sunderland butcher has said he “detests schools with a passion”. He declines all invitations to speak to pupils, telling the Telegraph in 2009 that he’d “rather cut off my left arm and eat it with Marmite. And I don’t even like Marmite.”
The anarchic quality of his work reflects a wider aversion to establishment. Deary, 67, has called historians “nearly as seedy and devious as politicians... eventually you see through them all”. Libraries are “irrelevant,” he said while criticising the idea of “entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and taxpayers.” His works are the seventh most borrowed in Britain.
So what next? You might hope that Deary turned his refreshing treatment of tired subjects to our leaders, say (“Perverse Politics?”) but, while he points out in an email that he’d have to “write another hundred years to run out of material” for children’s books, adults are his next target. He’s spending the next two years working on the first four titles, starting with “The Roman Empire.” What, no alliteration?