Horrible Histories (book series)

Horrible Histories

The former front cover of the Horrible Histories special France.
Author Terry Deary; Peter Hepplewhite
Illustrator Martin Brown; Philip Reeve; Mike Phillips
Cover artist Martin Brown; Philip Reeve; Kate Sheppard
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Civilisations, nations, periods and various cities throughout history
Genre Children's; history
Publisher Scholastic
Publication date

Horrible Histories is a series of illustrated history books published in the United Kingdom by Scholastic, and part of the Horrible Histories franchise. They are designed to engage children in history by presenting the unusual, gory, or unpleasant aspects in a tongue-in-cheek manner in contrast to the formality of lessons taught in school. The series has proved exceptionally successful in terms of commercial revenue. The books are written by Terry Deary, Peter Hepplewhite and Neil Tonge and illustrated by Martin Brown, Mike Phillips, Phillip Reeve, and Kate Sheppard.

The first titles in the series, The Terrible Tudors and The Awesome Egyptians, were published in June 1993.[1] As of 2011 with more than 60 titles in the series, the books have sold over 25 million copies in over 30 languages.[2][3] The books have had tie-ins with newspapers such as The Telegraph,[4] as well as audio-book tie-ins with breakfast cereals.[5]

Deary announced that the series would officially come to an end in 2013. The Telegraph said "after Deary was reported to have given up the bestselling series because he had run out of tales to tell...his publisher would not risk putting out any new ones". Deary says he cannot write a new book unless commissioned, and though he has not been told to stop writing, he has not explicitly been asked to continue, citing the gamble of a new book, "when you've got 60 titles there that you can rework and freshen up for the new audiences that are growing up all the time", as a probable cause.[6]


Deary discovered he had a knack for writing in his high school years. He said, "I was clearly good at it, getting good marks, but no teacher ever said to me: you should try to do something with this".[7] Instead, he pursued acting, and the writing "eventually stemmed from that".[7] Terry Deary studied at drama college and worked as an actor-teacher at the TIE company in Wales. He then became a theatre director and began to write plays for children. Many of his TIE plays were eventually rewritten and adapted into the Horrible Histories book series.[8] Deary said "I was in this small touring company, taking plays for children round Welsh village halls. I did find I had this facility for knocking ideas into scripts".[7]

After a particularly successful tour of a play called The Custard Kid, about a "cowardly cowboy", Deary decided he wanted to immortalise the production, so turned it into a book and sent it out to publishers. The 24th publisher said yes to the publication of the work by Deary, now around 30 years old.[7] By the time the idea of Horrible Histories was presented to him by his publisher, Deary had written around 50 children's novels. The Guardian explains, "they wanted a 'history joke book' and – when he protested that he knew nothing about history – offered to provide the facts to go with the gags".[7] Deary explains the series' inception this: "The publishers originally asked for a joke book with a history theme. They said, ‘Put in a few interesting facts to break up the jokes because some of your jokes are very bad.’ And when I looked at the facts, I found they were much more interesting than the jokes. So we ended up with a fact book with jokes. We created a new genre".[9]

The fifth book in the series, Blitzed Brits, was published in 1995, by chance coinciding with the 50th anniversary of VE day. The book reached no. 1 on the bestseller list. Deary decided that the book only gave the British viewpoint during World War II. Therefore, Deary wrote Woeful Second World War, focusing on experiences in France, Poland, Germany and Russia during the war. The book was published in September 1999, which coincided with the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II[8]

In 2003, to celebrate the 10th anniversary, Scholastic held a contest to find Horrible Histories' Brainiest Boffin. Deary played the Quizmaster and through a series of rounds, gradually eliminated five of the six finalists to be invited to the London vaults from 500 applicants.[10]

Deary eventually returned to the stage. Mad Millennium was commissioned by director Phil Clark, who was a fellow TIE participant 25 years before. He suggested turning the books into large-scale theatre productions. Deary was happy to return to writing plays.[8]

By the early 2010s, Deary decided that the series had naturally come to an end. He said "It has had a good run, it's had a better run than most children's series", and added that while his publishers have not officially stopped the series, there was "a general feeling" it would finish.[11] The Guardian explains, "Deary long ago handed over the reins for [his franchise], saying he's more than happy to leave it in the hands of others". This includes to companies like the Birmingham Stage Company that puts on stage plays adapted from his books, and CBBC that has broadcast an award winning live-action adaption of his books since 2009.[7] The Horrible Histories franchise has expanded into video games, toys, magazines, and a gameshow.

In 2007, the original series began to be republished with a new look and new content. The new books had altered information on the back cover, an index and a brighter, redesigned front cover. Around the same time the Horrible Histories live action TV series aired, many of the books were republished as TV tie-ins. In 2013, many of the books were republished in a "20 horrible years" theme.[12]


Everything I learnt [at school] after 11 was a waste of time...it was boring, badly taught and not related to the real world...schools are nothing but a Victorian idea to get people off the street.. Who decided that that putting 30 kids with only their age in common in a classroom with one teacher was the best way of educating?

from Terry Deary, The Guardian 12 August 2003[13]

Deary commented in interview, "if I had it my way, I wouldn't have schools at all. They don't educate, they just keep kids off the streets. But my books educate, because they prepare kids for life...It's outrageous, why don't we start telling children the truth about history? I hope my books do just that."[14]

Horrible Histories are designed to engage and enthuse the reader about a subject while appearing subversive, primarily aiming to entertain with a background educative purpose.[4][15][16] Deary views himself as a kid who wants to share facts with other kids, and as a writer who wishes to "entertain first and inform second". He does not respect authors who follow either extreme, that is, those who either only inform or only entertain. He believes that "readers are more important than writers and their needs have to come first" and that if the writer engages the reader, they will retain more knowledge from the work.[8] The series has a sceptical view on the accuracy and validity of history.[15][16] An introduction to one of the books in series states "History can be horrible. Horribly hard to learn. The trouble is it keeps on changing ... In history a 'fact' is sometimes not a fact at all. Really it's just someone's 'opinion'. And opinions can be different for different people ... Teachers will try to tell you there are 'right' and 'wrong' answers even if there aren't."[4]

Many of Deary's books make very serious points, underneath all the jokes and gore. He often comments on whether the modern era is as vile as previous eras, and questions the reader's morals and patriotism. Deary explains "I'd basically concluded [The British Empire] was one of the worst things to happen to the planet. So I deployed the facts that illustrate that". The Guardian explains "The last chapter of Ruthless Romans portrays modern-day Zimbabwe and essentially asks, is this any different?". The musical stage show Barmy Britain, co-written by Deary, "features a finale whose sarcastic references to burger bars, bankers and internet dating leave its young audience in little doubt that whatever the crazed excesses of our ancestors, future generations will doubtless consider us every bit as loopy". When informed by a Jewish mother that her Rabbi told her not to introduce her children to the Holocaust before 13 years old, and that her 6-year-old had read it in Horrible Histories, Deary replied: "Sorry, but what am I supposed to do – lie to children?".[7]

Deary is very distrustful of the establishment. He said "I was beaten, bullied and abused at school in the name of passing exams. It taught me nothing and I had to break out. So I started challenging authority at school, really, and just kind of never stopped". He didn't reply to Tony Blair's invitation to come to No 10, telling The Guardian "The only politician ever to have entered parliament with honourable intentions, was Guy Fawkes". He also declined an invitation to meet the Queen, and said he was "deeply disappointed" that the BBC's diamond jubilee coverage included a Horrible Histories sketch live from Tower Bridge.[7]

I'm not a historian, and I wouldn't want to be. I want to change the world. Attack the elite. Overturn the hierarchy. Look at my stories and you'll notice that the villains are always, always, those in power. The heroes are the little people. I hate the establishment. Always have, always will.

from Terry Deary, The Guardian 14 July 2012[7]

Deary uses researchers for all Horrible Histories often in specialised fields, such as a military history. While researching his books, he immerses himself in the period so he is in the right context, compiling much more information than he needs. He tends to exclude all the 'boring facts' such as dates, because, he maintains "dates don't matter. Human experience matters".[8] He wishes to avoid 'preaching' the value of history, instead focusing on the wonders of human nature, and asking how we each would behave in other people's shoes.[8][17]

The books make use of various media techniques, including cartoons (here by Martin Brown)

Deary uses many generic literary conventions to make his books more accessible to his readers. He deliberately writes in prose styles that follow natural speech cadences. He also frequently uses alliteration and assonance. Deary considered poetry to be "another weapon in the writer's armoury" rather than a specialised form that may only be used in specific circumstances. He maintains that the impersonal language used in textbooks alienates the reader. He therefore uses the second person to talk directly to the reader, as if he were talking to them in real life. He views Horrible Histories as one of the few non-fiction or fiction series which utilise this "underused style of writing".[8]

With Horrible Histories I want children to think about how people in certain moments of history felt and also for them to consider what these people were experiencing...in Horrible Histories I'm asking, 'Why do people do what they do?' And, ultimately, 'Why do I behave the way I do?

from Terry Deary quoted in Creating Writers: A Creative Writing Manual for Schools

Deary uses the newspaper style to make serious material more accessible so the reader approaches the piece in "a more relaxed frame of mind than they would a school text", as in an article about the Massacre at Lidice. Newspapers are also used to illustrate light-hearted stories, such as might appear in a tabloid. Newspaper extracts, along with letters and diaries are used to tell stories from the perspectives of individual people, in order "to get away from the objective, and to get [his] readers to view history subjectively".[8]

When writing about events and historical periods that are still in living memory, such as the Second World War, the series aims to maintain sensitivity. Deary argues that a story about a Tudor executioner who needs ten hacks to chop off someone's head, for example, can, however, afford to be comical as contemporary society is so far removed from the event. Deary believes that it is important for children to know about recent events, such as The Holocaust, not relegating them as taboo subjects that cannot be discussed.[8] He has commented that the books do have borders they won't cross. They wouldn't, for example, describe violence against babies, such as the Vikings inflicted, and aside from some snogging, the series doesn't venture into the realms of sex.[3]

The majority of the series' demographic are 'reluctant readers', who like books they can "pick one up, read a small section, and then put it down again". Deary attributes this to the use of short chapters, the fact that one may read the book in a non-linear order, and the varying uses of media in each book, such as quizzes and comic strips.[8]

Often the protagonists of one book can become the antagonists in another book. For example, the Romans are the attackers in Cut-Throat Celts, but their own history is explored in Rotten Romans and Ruthless Romans. Similarly, Vicious Vikings and Stormin' Normans paint their respective civilizations in a more favourable light than in Smashin' Saxons, and the Christians depicted as courageous victims of persecution in Ruthless Romans become the hateful persecutors of native populations in Barmy British Empire and Incredible Incas. This shows the fluidity of history: that all great cultures eventually fall.

Horrible Histories in translation

The books have been issued since 1997 by the publishing house Egmont. In Poland, the series' common name, Strrraszna historia, includes Strrraszna historia (Horrible Histories), Strrraszne sławy (Horribly Famous), and Sławy z krypty (Dead Famous). There is also a sub-series describing various aspects of Polish history and society (written by Małgorzata Fabianowska and Małgorzata Nesteruk, illustrated by Jędrzej Łaniecki). These titles were written and published exclusively in Poland and have not yet been published in English.

The collection Os Horríveis (The Horribles) in Portugal and Saber Horrível (Horrible knowledge) in Brazil are designed to create interest in history, geography, science and other school subjects. The collection has become a great commercial success. In Brazil, "Saber Horrível" is published by Editora Melhoramentos and has sold more than 1 million copies. In Portugal, the collection Os Horríveis is published by Publicações Europa-América and is subdivided into História Horrível (Horrible History), Ciência Horrível (Horrible Science), Geografia Horrível (Horrible Geography) and Cultura Horrível (Horrible Culture). The Czech version is known as Děsivé dějiny (Horrible History). As well as translating the English books, it also include translations of the Polish sub-series. Other books are specific to Czech History, such as Děsné české dějiny (Horrible Czech History). They are mainly written by Roman Ferstl, however Martin Pitro wrote Pyskatí Habsburkové. The first Horrible Histories videogame was published in Germany, translating the series' title as Schauderhafte Geschichten. The Dutch series Waanzinnig om te weten (Amazing to know) is a translation and an adaptation of the English series Horrible Histories, Horrible Science, Horrible Geography and Murderous Maths, but not all books from all series have been translated into Dutch. As of January 2009, this series includes 36 books. Other languages which the series has been translated into include Thai and Spanish. Cut-Throat Celts is known as Y Celtiaid Cythryblus in the Welsh edition.


The book Bloody Scotland drew the ire of the Scottish Separatist Group, who claimed it promoted a "UK centric, anti-Scottish viewpoint of Scottish history". They pointed to a featured haggis recipe: "cook the haggis until it looks like a hedgehog after the fifteenth lorry has run over it". They reported the book to the Commission for Racial Equality, who rejected their claim.[18] The National Trust was unhappy with Cruel Kings and Mean Queens because it made fun of Prince Charles, the trust's patron, and Queen Elizabeth II.[18][19] Slimy Stuarts has been accused of anti-Catholic views.[20]

In the series, there are two books entitled The Horrible History of the World and The Wicked History of the World; however, they are the same book with different headings. To confuse things further, compact and mini editions were planned for release at the end of 2007. The same incident occurred with The Horribly Huge Quiz Book/ Massive Millennium Quiz Book, and The Mad Millennium /Mad Millennium Play. Also, there were two different covers for Horrible Christmas, as well as new paperback, compact and mini editions.

Much of what are proclaimed as 'facts' are, debatably, exciting myths and legends. The books, for example, claim that Shakespeare invented the evil actions he attributed to Richard III and present Caligula as being insane. Some of these falsities are listed in the song "It's Not True" in the CBBC TV series. Promoting Reading for Pleasure in the Primary School argues that the series provides an extensive level of detail for the subject material, and uses strong, authentic sources.[15]

The series has been described as a "popular iconoclasm, a challenge to standard narratives".[15] However other critics suggest that this is a "deliberate attempt to provide alternate readings" on principle.[21] Teachers' omniscient authority is undermined in sections such as 'Test Your Teacher', which says "Your teachers will tell you all about the legions and what they wore and how they lived. But they don't know everything." By these tokens, the series could be taken to suggest that formal education provides an approved, abridged version of history, one which leaves out all the gory, interesting bits.[4] Thus certain authors argue that any histories that do not focus on spectacular events are now deemed boring to younger readers.[22] The use of non-linear structure has raised the concern that the books are encouraging shorter concentration spans, that longer narratives develop.[23]

Horrible Histories has received much praise.[24] It is cited as a non-fiction series which has successfully used a formula to entice young children into reading: "The information here is densely packed, at a suitable level for Key Stages 2 and 3, historically accurate and complete with cautions about history being interpretive, but the success lies in the humorous and varied way that the subjects are presented".[25] In Words, words, words, Janet Allen notes the books are "delightful combinations or cartoons, graphs and charts, narration, letters and wanted posters that convey a vast amount of information about those periods".[26] Other critics also praise the wide variety of media in the books, such as recipes, quizzes and newspaper extracts; use of comic strip is particularly noted.[4][15][27][28][29][30] The series is also recognised as an effective trigger for debates in English lessons.[31]

The humour of the books has been identified as a major aspect of the series' success[32][33] along with the story-telling skill. The series is notable for being historical non-fiction that young people read for pleasure, the first of its kind, pioneering a genre.[8][34][35] Consuming history by Jerome De Groot, cites Horrible Histories as a series which demonstrates the "flexibility and dynamism of the 'historical' form" in children's books, another possible market for those types of books. It explains that the books "play on children's fascination with goriness" and that they are "mischievous, irreverent and iconoclastic, appealing to a child audience's desire for silly jokes, presenting history as something tactile and simple". Interactivity is attributed to the re-printable recipes and "what would you do?" multiple choice sections. Groot compares the use of illustration to Glenn Thompson's For Beginners comic books of the mid-1980s.[4] Horrible Histories are noted for making "heavy use of visual and verbal textual interplay".[36] While the series' direct address to its child audience makes the series a popular choice for independent reading, it can make the books ineffective as read-aloud books due to their personalized style of writing and the visual aspects of the books. However, some teachers have reported as using these books in a read-aloud manner.[15] Consuming history by Jerome De Groot suggests that "the series' wider popularity is due to their tone and style rather than their content".[21]

While discussing the graphic violence in games such as Counter-Strike, Grand Theft Auto and Half Life, the author Judy Arnall notes that children in many societies, current and historical, often witness events much more horrific than those featured in the games. She cites The Wicked History of the World as giving a good context for this.[37]

Press response

The series has been generally well received. [38][39] [40][41] The Daily Telegraph wrote "Terry Deary is the most influential historian in Britain today."[42]

Jenny Knott of The Times asked: "Why weren’t history books like this when I was a child?" Katie Law of The Evening Standard: "It's not hard to see why school children prefer Horrible Histories to the National Curriculum. Terry Deary's mischievous mix of humour, sadistic statistics and corny jokes, padded out by Martin Brown's wry comic cartoons, has proved irresistible bedtime reading for millions since the first, Terrible Tudors, was published." Books for Keeps said: "History as spot on as this is not so much an account as an enactment." Books Magazine said: "If you haven’t come across Horrible Histories before you’ve missed a true publishing phenomenon — Terry Deary seems to have invented a whole new genre with his series of books looking at history in an entirely different way." The Sunday Herald wrote: "Kids love the Horrible Histories series because of Terry Deary's unstuffy approach and the amount of carnage featured."



Original books

The original versions of the books each had a "The" interjected at the start of their titles. This was removed after 2007.

Horrible Histories Two in One

There has also been a book package released entitled the Blood Curdling Box Set. It includes the books: Savage Stone Age, Awesome Egyptians, Groovy Greeks, Rotten Romans, Cut-Throat Celts, Smashing Saxons, Vicious Vikings, Stormin Normans, Angry Aztecs, Incredible Incas, Measly Middle Ages, Slimy Stuarts, Terrible Tudors, Gorgeous Georgians, Vile Victorians, Villainous Victorians, Barmy British Empire, Frightful First World War, Woeful Second World War, Blitzed Brits.[44]



Horrible Histories Gruesome Guides (previously Horrible Histories Cities)

Some Horrible Histories have been based around a particular city, rather than a nation or a specific time period. They also have a map when the front cover is folded out, and explain some structures in the city when the back cover is folded out. Therefore, many people consider them to be a sub-series as well. (Even though Loathsome London doesn't have these qualities, it was included into this sub-series during the republishing of the series from 2008–2011.[49][50]

High Speed history

High Speed History is a Horrible Histories sub-series beginning in 2010 that features historical tales in a comic-strip format. The sub-series is written by Terry Deary and illustrated by Dave Smith.


Novelty books and others




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External links

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