How to Make History Appealing

Paul Wreyford

The author of a new history aimed at children explains the challenges of writing for them.
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My teenage son and daughter reckon that most history books are dull and boring.

And you know what…I tend to agree with them.

No, please don’t stop reading. Don’t throw me and my books on the fire – I’m no history heretic (or perhaps I am). Like you, I love history.

So what do I mean? Well, I reckon that most history books are written to inform and educate. Well, of course they are, I hear you say. And that’s fine if you already love history and want to delve deeper – you probably won’t even notice those sometimes dry and impersonal chapters that are perhaps necessary. But how many teenagers (and adults come to that) love history so much that they are willing to suffer dullness in the pursuit of knowledge? Not many, I would submit.

So that’s the problem, in my opinion. Most history books are written for people who already like history – the converted. I believe we need more history books for those that don’t necessarily like history – the unconverted. And you can probably place most teenagers (and most adults) in that bracket.

In my role as a tutor of English (not history, I’m afraid), I’m frequently asked by parents what their loved one needs to do to improve their English. I tell them that they need to do only three things. Number one: read. Number two: read. Number three: read. I don’t know who said it, but adults that are intelligent were children that read.

My teens used to love reading when they were younger, but like most teenagers, that love waned as they got older – and got mobile devices. It doesn’t help that us adults are not exactly role models; what sort of a message are we sending out to our children when our noses are constantly pressed against our smartphones instead of in a book? (OK, I know you can read a book on your smartphone, but you know what I mean.)

So we first need to get our children to read books again. We, as those who love history and recognise the importance of it, then need to get them to pick up history books.

How do we do that, then? We write history books that entertain and inform, but with the emphasis being on entertainment. As you can probably guess from the title of my latest history book, When Henry VIII Came to Dinner is not for academics or serious historians. It’s for those teens (and adults) that don’t necessarily want to pick up a history book, or at least think that they don’t. Why isn’t my history book ‘dull’ and ‘boring’? Of course, it might still be, but that was the one thing I tried to prevent it being. I wrote it to firstly entertain. That’s what teenagers want – that’s what we all want if we’re honest. We all want to be entertained. You can thrust a book into the hands of a teenager, but unless they enjoy it, they will soon put it down. And they are not going to learn a lot if they don’t get beyond the first chapter.

Again, in my role as a tutor, I have come to realise that kids learn best when they don’t realise they are even learning.

The brilliant Horrible Histories realised this, of course. I set out with the same intention: to inform – but first to entertain. I’m hoping to succeed with teens, as Horrible Histories did with younger children, even if it’s in a more modest way.

Sadly, the most common adjectives people use to describe their history lessons at school are indeed ‘dull’ and ‘boring’. I’ve heard those words so many times; from the lips of my own teens, to my peers.

To be honest, I thought the same when I was younger, and history was not particularly my favourite subject at school. I was a much later convert.

That should not be the way it is. Like me, you probably agree that history is an amazing subject. It’s got everything: incredible stories…fantastic characters. It should therefore make for the most exciting books.

So, yes, I believe that actually most people who say they don’t like history or reading history books just don’t like the way the subject is often presented. Presentation is everything. You can make the most exciting subject dull if it’s not presented in the right way.

The most common comment I get from adult readers of When Henry VIII Came to Dinner is something like this: “I wish they had this sort of history book when I was at school.”

I take that as a compliment and am reassured that I’ve achieved what I set out to do.

And, in case you’re wondering, I did persuade my own teenagers to read my book. And guess what…yes, I think they actually enjoyed it.

Paul Wreyford is the author of When Henry VIII Came to Dinner, published by Chiselbury.