Has anyone done a PhD yet on Terry Deary’s ‘Horrible Histories’ and their numerous offspring? They’re an intriguing breed, and Turner and Goddard’s Writers and their tall tales in the ‘Dead Famous’ series is no exception.
The field-work might focus on case studies, exploring what individual readers make of these books. Do they learn about Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, the Brontës, Hardy, Joyce and Orwell from this text? If so, what? And if they do, do they see it as ‘learning’ like the learning offered them in English lessons? Interviews with the books’ creators would be useful too. It’s hard to tell whether the author and the illustrator – for he is an equal partner in the book – and even the publisher mean to teach. Did they ever discuss their intentions together, you wonder? Seriously, there’s an interesting area to be explored here.
If you take Turner’s verbal text, you’ll find almost all the well-known (and some less well-known) information and anecdotes about the famous authors and their famous works. There are few concessions to dumbing-down, despite the regular use of words like ‘posh’. The writer shares an infectious amusement and excitement about her subject matter and the narrative is always witty and alive. Some devices come as standard in relation to each author; for example, diary entries at different points in their lives (‘The secret diary of Geoffrey Chaucer aged [roughly] 18½’).
In such features, Goddard’s cartoons and decorations interplay with the words: speech bubbles, comic strips, Shakespeare’s school timetable and the rest. There’s plenty of wit and fun here too, but the visuals are more problematic than the prose. Their jokeyness is a touch too relentless. Titus Andronicus (‘just the gory bits’) is watched by an audience speech-bubbling ‘Yeuch!’, ‘Nasty!’, ‘Gross!’, ‘Bleurrgh!’, ‘Barf!’ as the pie containing bits of the three brothers is served up to their mother. ‘Needs salt,’ she says. And why Titus anyway? I can’t help feeling that somewhere in all the sparky humour of the illustrations there is a kind of selling-short, a notion that kids have to be seduced into meeting these Great Authors. Rather like those desperate lessons trying to hook kids into Compulsory Shakespeare by focusing on his insults. No doubt Scholastic would say the books are introductions, but the test is whether they really lead anyone anywhere. As any teacher knows, introductions are the easy bit.
And another query – did it all amuse and make sense to me chiefly because I knew the facts and anecdotes already? Time to enlist some young readers and then – bring on the researchers.