‘Imagine returning to school for the new term and finding your history teacher was … Peter Ackroyd.’ So runs the press release for the first two titles of Voyages through Time, a 10-part history encyclopedia by Peter Ackroyd, published by Dorling Kindersley. An unlikely choice of children’s historian on the surface perhaps, for Ackroyd is best known for his adult novels like Hawksmoor and Chatterton, for his biographies of Wilde, Dickens and Blake, and for his brilliant chronicle London. Yet this unexpected marriage between Ackroyd and DK produces a startlingly original new approach to non-fiction. Sue Unstead explores.
DK have chosen to launch with what they call ‘the bookends’ of the ‘Voyages through Time’ series, volumes 1 and 10. The Beginning opens with the words: ‘The Earth came out of fire. The Earth was fire. That fire still burns at the centre of our world, to remind us of the beginning…’ This sets the tone of what is to follow. This is writing that has energy and imagination, on a grand scale, almost Biblical at times. ‘Darkness gave birth to light,’ he writes, describing the formation of the Universe. And in Escape from Earth man’s dream to explore space is fulfilled with the words ‘It came to pass’.
The imagery matches the text in boldness and atmosphere. These are not the signature DK spreads of close-up photography on stark white backgrounds like a museum display. Instead we have saturated colour with a cinematic quality, computer-generated images juxtaposing photographs and artwork. This change of direction was DK’s deliberate attempt to update its visual language, to make it less static and more contemporary. Images are chosen to be evocative and compelling as well as for their informational content. This requires a level of visual sophistication from the audience, but these are children brought up on the realism of computer modelling and deep space photography.
Credit for the commissioning of Ackroyd must go to Children’s Publishing Director Miriam Farbey. ‘Standing in Waterstones looking through the children’s history section I realised there isn’t really an outstanding children’s historian. I had recently bought London and found it full of drama and suspense, so I decided to approach Ackroyd.’ His agent was initially quite taken aback at the request for a series for younger readers, but DK was persuasive that cross-over titles could be a way forward for non-fiction, just as in fiction, as demonstrated by Philip Pullman and others.
A narrative approach to non-fiction
Ackroyd himself relished the challenge, and he wrote the manuscript in one fell sweep. His text flows in a continuous narrative, without headings or other interruptions for the reader apart from chapter breaks. For DK this was a new way of working, starting with the text rather than planning out a book visually in advance of any writing. ‘We learned a lot,’ says Farbey, ‘about the importance of pace, the need for “quiet times”.’ The narrative approach certainly makes more demands of the reader but, says Farbey, ‘Kids love to read stories, and it is a shame to keep this completely separate from non-fiction. And Ackroyd goes beyond storytelling by introducing philosophy and character.’ There was never any attempt at ‘dumbing down’ his text. ‘We don’t as children’s publishers need to be restrained by simple texts.’ Instead they strove to achieve a clarity of structure, only occasionally shortening sentences. There was lots of close debate, but it appears to be a happy partnership. The books have attracted an unusual amount of positive response from teachers, who praise DK for not underestimating an enthusiastic child’s ability when fired by a subject. In the end, says Publisher Christopher Davis, ‘It is the quality of the writing that is so important, writing that has resonance and poetry, rather than dry as dust factual text.’
There is plenty of hard factual information to be covered in volume 10, Escape from Earth, yet Ackroyd always comes back to the human element. Describing the building of the Russian Cosmodrome at Baikonur in the ’50s, he focuses on the exhausted men who used only hand tools to dig the enormous pit for the launch pad, in temperatures ranging from -40°C in winter to searing desert heat in summer, plagued by scorpions and spiders and cholera-bearing rats. Ackroyd has the kind of infectious curiosity and love of detail that can spark a child’s imagination. He writes with awe of the new vision of deep space opened up by the Hubble Telescope ‘unimaginable time and space … millions of these superclusters, stretching out through billions of light years of space. Immensity is piled upon immensity. The mind and the imagination break down before the enormity.’
Ackroyd is now working on further titles on Egypt and Pre-Columbian America, and is keen next to turn to the fundamental pillars of our civilisation, Classical Greece and Imperial Rome. China and Medieval Europe are also mentioned, so perhaps the encyclopedia may eventually expand beyond 10 volumes. With its rich visual imagery and ambitious sweep Voyages through Time is an exciting new departure, and one hopes that other similar series might follow. ‘Good writing is so important,’ says Christopher Davis, ‘Maybe there are other people who have an attractive voice for children and can stimulate an interest in their subject.’
Voyages through Time
The Beginning, 1 4053 0032 9
Escape from Earth, 1 4053 0033 7
Dorling Kindersley, 144pp, £14.99 each hbk
Sue Unstead was a publisher of children’s non-fiction for 25 years and is now a freelance editorial consultant and writer.