Books Picture Book Challenge 2011 Young Adult (YA) Literature

Nonfiction Monday: Who’s Horrible in History by Terry Deary and Martin Brown

The very first Terry Deary book that I read and reviewed was my own copy of Horrible Christmas. While I am technically a fiction-kind-of-girl (I usually have more than enough of the ‘real’ world thankyouverymuch), I do enjoy Terry Deary’s unique and amusing take on history. I also figured that this is a perfect book to share with the other regulars on Nonfiction Monday by Anastasia Suen and rounded up for this week by Lori Calabrese Writes.

The book is divided into ten major sections that effectively categorize awful, horrible historical figures into neat categories (with Deary’s trademark alliterative titles). In his Introduction, he noted that while there are quite a few pleasant people in history: those who help old ladies cross the road, cry when a hedgehog is run over by a bike – they do not happen to be the least bit interesting. In fact, he calls them “boring”:

“The only way kind, thoughtful and caring people end up in a history book is if something nasty happens to them.” (p. 5)

Sad, but oh so true. And he proceeds to share the gruesome, ghastly, and repugnant ways through which these not-boring-but-dead historical figures met their end.

Awful Assassins and Manic Monarchs. Deary devoted sections on leader-killers (otherwise known as assassins) and kings/queens who are not suitable to rule for one reason or another (cowardice, madness or not being bright enough).

Deary presents the information in a layout that would prove to be very attractive to children (and even to adults). Aside from the glossy colorful pages and the equally lovely illustrations, there are sticky-notes, foul facts, comic-strip presentations, newspaper-like-clippings that make everything a wonderful and interesting read.

And so through this book my nine year old got introduced to Marcus Brutus (assassin of Roman Leader Julius Caesar), Charles VI of France (who “suffered from a strange illness that caused his hair and nails to fall out” p. 20), Queen Victoria and Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria.

Ruthless Rulers and Rotten Rebels. In this section, not only did Deary share what he knew about what he calls the “fearsome five” ruthless rulers in history, he also provided gory information about rotten rebels who naturally stood up against the ‘monstrous monarchs.’ One of my favorite reads here is the story of Don Carlos, Prince of Spain from 1545-1568.

The Story of Don Carlos

His life story narrative shows that even monarchs are not free of ill fortune. This poor man was described by Deary as such:

Don Carlos was a sad and sickly child. He grew up hunchbacked and pigeon-breasted, with shoulders of uneven height and his right leg a lot shorter than the left. He spoke in a high, girly voice and stuttered badly. His dad, King Philip, was worried that one day dull Don would become king.

It also appears that in addition to his physical deformity, he is also mentally deranged which manifested itself with his biting serving girls before he was five years old. Apparently, three nearly died from his attacks – so these are not your cutesie little nicks and harmless chomps. He slept with a mummy, had violent rages, and was eventually locked up in the tower of Arevalo Castle. Sounds like a plot for a blockbuster film!

Rotten Rebel indeed

Among the rebels, I would say the one that caught my eye would be Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Of course the Russian Leader Joseph Stalin made Lenin appear like a “beginner” as Deary noted – and I believe that notwithstanding the flippant way in which the facts are presented – these are horrible times in history that we should not forget.

Potty Priests and Wicked Women. Deary pointed out in this section that “Religion has caused more death and misery than anything else in history. People say, ‘My God’s better than your God,’ or even, ‘I am your God!'” It is actually pretty interesting that the first historical figure he mentioned was Amenhotep – which oddly enough reminded me of Imhotep in the Hollywood flick “The Mummy.”

For the Wicked Women, Deary’s layout shows that of a “Rotten Report” about their “Cruel Crimes” and “What they say” about these lovely ladies. One of my absolute favorites (and my daughter’s too, although reading it gave her the chills) would be the vignette about “The Blood Countess of Transylvania”

Bloody Bess was born in 1560 into one of the richest families in Transylvania. She should have had a happy life – but she killed over 600 women and girls in the early 1600s. Why? so she could have a bath in their blood. She thought it made her look young. Bloodthirsty Bess had horrible henchmen to help her. They drained the blood from the victims and filled the baths. (p. 52)

Now how’s that for a storyline? Wow.

Kruel for Killers and Wild Warriors. These two sections are a bit shorter compared to the others. Here Deary provides space to the famous murderers in history whom he noted to be possibly innocent. In Wild Warriors, he also made mention of fighting facts which includes weapons, troops, and tactical stratagems – things that any self-respecting young boy would enjoy.

Crazy Criminals and Torturer’s Tales. What I found particularly interesting in this section is how some punishments actually seem worse than the actual crimes.

Crazy Criminals

Case in point would be Pope Formosus who was tried for his crime of advising German King Arnulf to invade Italy. Yes, truly evil. But he was tried after his death! Yes he was dug up, dressed in his pope gown and sent to trial though he was all decaying skin and bones. And this is non-fiction. Torturer’s Tales on the other hand simply show the extent that people would go to in order for them to hear what they want to hear. Foul facts indeed.

Is History Boring? People often have the mistaken notion that history is hopelessly dull and tedious – what with all the facts that need to be memorized – things that do not seem to relate to one’s life at present. So archaic and so.. irrelevant for most. Deary, with his British puns and witticisms (not to mention Martin Brown’s amazing illustrations) make history come alive through these short vignettes. I could just imagine the amount of research they needed to do in order to come up with a spread on a historical figure’s life. The challenge of sifting through mountains of data and discerning which ones would best capture a young person’s eye – that’s skill. Of course, there is the possibility that young adults or older people (with very little sense of humor) might see some of the jokes as trivializing pain or the horrors of history – I suppose it needs to be taken in context and in the way that Deary intended it to be: a presentation of gruesome historical details in a manner that would make a child listen and pay attention to factual details. I leave it to the reader to discern their own boundaries in the matter. Most of the horrifying things in life after all, are tragic comedies, in essence. And if you can’t laugh at yourself, that’s the greatest tragedy of all.

Picture Book Reading Challenge Update: 90 of 120

Horrible Histories: Who’s Horrible in History by Terry Deary and Illustrated by Martin Brown. Scholastic Children’s Books, London, UK, 2009. Book borrowed from the NIE Library

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

7 comments on “Nonfiction Monday: Who’s Horrible in History by Terry Deary and Martin Brown

  1. Our family enjoyed the tamer, but no less interesting, America’s Horrible Histories series by Elizabeth Levy and also the Horrible Science series.


  2. Wow! As a school teacher, I would have loved to dangle this book in front of kids (especially the ones who balked at “free choice reading.” They will love it! Great review!


  3. The topic is interesting. I also love the layout of the material. I agree it is very kid-friendly. I am going to see if I can get this book in my local library. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Pingback: Carnival of Children’s Literature and Round-up for August |

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