Writing Children's History

Patrick Dillon, who is writing a children's history of Britain, belives history is best told through stories.

I first fell in love with history through stories.

Alfred burning the cakes, the Six Wives of Henry VIII – I wasn’t sure how they differed from Greek myths or bible stories, but they stuck in my mind then, and they’re still there now. At school we were given a blue pamphlet by HW Hartley MA (Oxon) entitled ‘Notes of British History’. It began with Julius Caesar and ended with Queen Victoria’s funeral, and we made that journey every academic year. Ailing teachers would stall after Waterloo, while energetic ones occasionally reached the Second World War (to the joy of thirty small boys). The territory became familiar from the tramp of thirty pairs of feet through the Middle Ages (‘Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste…’), and the ‘Tudors ’n’ Stuarts’. HW Hartley MA (Oxon) believed in facts, not entertainment, but even he couldn’t stop the stories from coming through. What did the Black Hole of Calcutta look like when they opened the door? I knew, when I was ten.

Thirty years later I started to tell my own children stories about history. A certain tree in the garden took you back in time when you slept under it (nothing too original there) and with the help of their friends Molly and Ruth, they have taken part in most of the great events of European history, from the Roman invasion to the French Revolution. Once again, it is stories they want. They have already noticed that some of the stories are only stories, and others can be told in more than one way. It makes no difference. For stories answer the two questions none of us can ever resist: Why did that happen? and What happened next?

But when my children started learning history at school, they encountered something quite different. Instead of stories, they did topics. The National Curriculum has many virtues, of course. My children have made longships out of Cornflakes packets, and enjoyed every minute of it; they will love Greek Myths for the rest of their lives. But no one has yet told them who came first, the Romans or the Greeks. They are like two travelers learning their way round a city for the first time; they pop up from underground stations without the slightest idea how each group of streets fits together. So far as they are concerned, the Victorians might have lived a thousand years ago.

They don’t get much help from the Horrible Histories, either. Both of my children have loved Terry Deary’s series and, indeed, it’s hard to quarrel with books which get children to shovel in quite so many facts under a sugaring of puns and farting jokes. But again, they offer no continuity and no stories.

The most obvious way of putting history across wasn’t being used, I noticed. There was a gap. It was a gap I would have set about filling a good deal earlier if I hadn’t been busy with my history of the Revolution of 1688, The Last Revolution, which Jonathan Cape bring out later this year. By the time I finished it, two things had happened to strengthen my conviction that it was time for a new children’s history. Civitas had republished HE Marshall’s century-old classic, Our Island Story. And Ernst Gombrich’s Little History of the World had become a bestseller.

I grew up with Our Island Story. Its fat spine was shelved, in ours as in most households, somewhere near Shakespeare and the Bible, and indeed, its distinctive logo made it look something like a third Testament. That it should be presented as a source of history for children in 2005, though, was faintly alarming. Our Island Story does not describe how I see England, or Africa – or how I want my children to see them. The playground has become a more complicated place, and so has the world.

When I started work on my own children’s history, though, I discovered quite how difficult the task was. Our Island Story had a unity which was hard to match. Its narratives of heroism and derring-do were really telling one story: the tale of a nation and how it became great.

That wasn’t quite the book I wanted to write – or at least, it wasn’t the only one. But if political correctness and multiple points of view make for better nations, they make for worse stories. I wanted girls as well as boys in my book; I wanted poor children as well as Princes, I wanted the difficult choices as well as the victories, Peterloo as well as Waterloo. Somehow, I wanted to find room for the whole tapestry of British history, its shadows as well as its highlights; and an Edwardian narrator, however modernized, was unable to deliver that tale.

Which made me ask again: what was it that I had loved about history? And the answer was simple: people. That was when Our Story fell into place. It would be a series of stories about people, adults and children, politicians and paupers. They would include some of the people HE Marshall wrote about, but there would be room for new voices as well. A hundred and fifty stories – I mapped them out over a few days. There was risk of monotony there, so some of the stories started to cluster together. Families cropped up through history, and so did places. A brother and sister met a Jewish refugee in the thirties. Later on the brother would splash ashore in Normandy on D-Day, and his sister would meet an American airman near the farm she worked on.

The proposal is finished now, and Andrew has just started sending it out to publishers. I hope that Our Story will be finished in time for my own children to enjoy it. Because as the shape of our children’s world become visible, it seems to me that a knowledge of history has never been more important. Besides, British history is the greatest treasure chest of stories we have. From the Norman Conquest to the discovery of DNA, from Henry VIII to highwaymen, slavers to soldiers, history offers tales to excite young readers and to ask them questions, to frighten them and to make them laugh. It is through stories that most of us, in the end, find out who we are. I want Our Story to be the modern classic which unlocks the history of Britain for a new generation.

About article author

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Patrick Dillon

PATRICK DILLON was born in London in 1962. Awarded a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, he instead studied architecture in London, and qualified as an architect in 1987. His two crime novels, Truth and Lies, were published by Penguin in 1996 and 1997.In 2002 he combined long-standing inte...More about Patrick Dillon