Best known for his educational comedy podcast, You’re Dead To Me and the pandemic hit Homeschool History radio series, historian Greg Jenner has published several books for adults, but You Are History is his first for children. Judged ‘super enjoyable’ by our reviewer, we put questions to Greg about writing for children.
Your CV is amazing! What do you say when people ask you what you do?
Thanks! I say: ‘I’m a Public Historian’, and then they stare at me blankly. So, then I say: ‘my job is to make History accessible and interesting to everyone, no matter their age, background, or education. I mostly do this by using jokes and pop culture references in my work.’ And then they say: ‘Look, I don’t care, all I want to know is whether you know Lucy Worsley?’ and I say: ‘yes’, and then they’re impressed.
How did you move from studying history to your career as a broadcaster and writer?
I couldn’t afford my PhD in Medieval Literature, so I went into the TV industry because I wanted to reach as many people as possible. I started out making history documentaries, then historical dramas, and then I got lucky to find myself working on the CBBC Horrible Histories comedy sketch show. At university I had written and performed comedy, and I’d written my MA thesis on Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie, so it was the perfect job for me. I did that for 11 years. Then in 2013 I got my first book deal, which got me my first TV presenting job, and then I created my own BBC podcast, You’re Dead To Me, which has done surprisingly well, and now I’ve returned to writing for kids… so, I do a bit of everything!
What first inspired your own interest in history?
I grew up half-French and half-British, and found it intriguing how Napoleon was either a hero or a monster depending on which parent I asked! But my love of history came mostly from comedy; I loved the funny Asterix books as a kid, and then in my teens became obsessed with Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, French & Saunders, Monty Python, Blackadder, and Eddie Izzard. They used the past as a gag-rich goldmine, but they didn’t worry about factual accuracy. Obviously, I can’t do that! When I use jokes, it’s my way of making the bigger, factual stuff less terrifying or boring.
You Are History conveys a huge amount of information to children (very memorably too). What are the key things you want them to take away from the book?
I wanted a book that felt relevant and exciting to every child, no matter their background – all of us spend our days surrounded by ordinary objects, and repeating everyday customs, that have been shaped by thousands of years of global history, but we barely give them a second glance. So, You Are History is hopefully full of funny surprises, but it’s also a reminder that our world has been formed by deep interconnectivity across many nations, and that we all share these hidden ties to the people who came before us. History belongs to everyone, and we all carry that heritage.
What do you like best about working with children?
Kids are so smart! They have incredible memories, endless curiosity, they ask the best questions, and it’s such a wonderful privilege to be entrusted with the job of helping them make sense of their world. They’re also the harshest critics – they don’t politely let you down gently if you’ve churned out a lazy project … nope, they’re ruthless enforcers of quality control!
If you could live at any time in history, when would it be and why?
I’m asthmatic, so I’m not sure I’d survive in an era before modern medicine… I’ve always thought it would be great to hang out with Leonardo Da Vinci in Renaissance Italy, but actually that was a time of incredibly violent wars, so maybe I’m better off picking London in the 1960s – plenty of good music, fun fashion, and not so many cannon bombardments!
You Are History by Greg Jenner, illustrated by Jenny Taylor is published by Walker Books, £14.99 hbk.