Saturday, October 9, 2021

Writing History: An interview with Frankie Durkin

The Histronauts: A Greek Adventure by Frances Durkin and Vicky Barker (b small, 2021)

With The Histronauts now into their fourth outing, A Greek Adventure, it's starting to look like a series that is very much going places. When the first three books (Roman, Egyptian and Viking) were published, I was very excited to see historical fact not only presented in an authentic and passionately personal way, but that it was all couched in the form of a graphic novel! Alongside this, there was diversity in evidence too and a very practical, hands-on feel (there's always recipes or crafts to make), all of which combine to give the series a refreshing and exciting edge over many other history books for children.

These books are a real gift to teachers, but what has really fascinated me as a Writing Teacher is how do we education professionals best help the young people in our care to think, read and write well about history? So it's been a huge pleasure  to have been given the opportunity to ask Frankie Durkin about her feeling for the past and how she writes history. 


Hi Frankie. I’m interested to know more about how history became such a passion for you. Can you tell us what was the first time you knew history was going to become a big part of your life? 

Hi Ben. I really don’t remember a moment when history wasn’t in my life. It was always firmly in the foundations of my childhood thanks to my parents and aunt. From day trips to museum outings to books to documentaries and TV shows. There was always so much history on my doorstep and kids in the UK are so lucky to grow up in a place where the past is such a key part of the landscape and tourist industry. There are places to visit and stories to learn wherever you are. The smell of the Jorvik Viking Centre is really nostalgic for me and the research visits for The Histronauts’ Viking book a few years ago brought back a lot of happy childhood memories. I also became fascinated with ancient Greece after spending an afternoon watching Clash of the Titans when I was about eight and I read everything I could get my hands on, even Homer. And I remember Mum having a book that tied in with a mock trial of Richard III that was staged by Channel 4 back in the early eighties. That led to another obsession and I actually wrote to my MP about exhuming the bones of the Princes in the Tower from Westminster Abbey. But I don’t remember ever having a moment when I thought that I would become a historian. I didn’t even study it formally until I started my master’s degree. But I love it. I love asking questions and finding out about the lives of people who lived such a long time ago. It felt like a natural progression to do my PhD and keep doing something that I’m so passionate about. But I never dreamed I could be lucky enough to be sharing history with young audiences quite like this.

2. Which historical periods have particularly fascinated you personally? What is it about them that grabbed them so much? 

So ancient Greece and The Wars of the Roses were very big early influences, but the Middle Ages has been my longest fascination. I grew up close to medieval castles and cathedrals so they definitely shaped what I was most interested in. I also like to blame Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But those familiar old buildings and city streets always inspired me to look for answers about the history and what life was like for the real people who built them and lived in them. And that’s what carried me into my doctoral research and the reason I became a medievalist.

3. In choosing to write for young people, what did/do you want to capture to engage them in a similar fascination in history to your own. 

My own love of history started, and was nurtured, when I was very young. I don’t really recall it being something that I thought of as a chore or even a subject to learn. It was just something I was very interested in and always wanted to find out more about. My parents gave me the freedom to explore what I wanted to, and I loved finding out new things. But I’m not unique in that respect; so many historians talk about a childhood love of the subject or a particular topic that captured their imaginations and stayed with them through to adulthood. I think it’s natural to want to be a part of igniting that spark for new generations and I really want to help create those lifelong passions for history in our readers.

The Histronauts themselves are the most important element for engaging our readers. We created a group of friends who want to explore and ask questions. They love to go on adventures and they definitely want you to come with them. They don’t just want to be told what the past was like, they want to discover it for themselves. We really want everyone to be a part of their gang and to learn alongside them. 

4. What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of writing about history? 

Oh, that’s easy; what to leave out. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a book for children or a research paper for a room full of medievalists, there is always more to say than I ever have time or space to include. Making the decisions about what makes the final edit and what doesn’t is so difficult. I honestly can’t imagine that any non-fiction author doesn’t have the same problem. When it comes to writing The Histronauts that decision is sometimes helped by the fact that some things are just not appropriate for a young audience. But a lot of research goes into these books and so many wonderful facts or stories don’t make it into the final edit. I am lucky that some details can be used in workshops or teacher notes that support the books but, ultimately, I hope that The Histronauts inspire our readers to find out more for themselves and that they are a steppingstone into whole new worlds of all the things that didn’t make it into the books.

5. I’ve found when children write about history it’s important to show them to take a specific focus. How do you select what to include/write about when presenting huge topics such as “The Greeks” or “The Romans”?

That’s a great question! The structure of the books set out a lot of parameters for what I decide to focus on. The Histronauts spend a single day with a person from a certain period so choosing the point in time that they will experience helps to give the books their focus. Some of our books look at subject areas that refer to thousands of years of history and I take care to pick a point that gives us a wealth of information and allows us to discuss what had happened earlier. A good example of this is from our book about ancient Egypt. I wanted to set it during the construction of the pyramids but this happened relatively early in the timeline of what we call ‘ancient Egypt’ so it limited what our characters could talk to each other about. However, by shifting the setting to the Valley of the Kings in a later period we could still acknowledge the pyramids and take advantage of the stunning archaeology from Deir el-Medina where the craftspeople who built the tombs lived and worked.

The individuals who serve as The Histronauts guide also gives us an anchor to work around. In previous books we have met the daughter of a Viking boat builder, an Egyptian priestess and a man enslaved by a Roman General. In A Greek Adventure we meet a theatre propmaker who introduces us to his work, his family, the things he sees and even the things he eats. We wanted to make a deliberate shift away from experiencing the world through the eyes of kings and queens. Instead, our key characters are ‘ordinary’ people who give us an insight into how any one of us might have lived during that period. So, although the book does contain broad information about different classes of society, we want to show people that our readers can relate to and imagine themselves interacting with.

Our intention is always to take a vast topic and focus on how a person occupied their own place at a point in that time. We then build around them and allow The Histronauts tell us more about the bigger parts of that world. 

6. In your opinion what does the format of The Histronauts series do for children’s love of history AND love of reading for pleasure? 

Graphic novels are such an exciting format and I’m so delighted to see so much discussion about them between creators and educators on social media (I know you’re a big part of this discourse Ben). Visual literacy is such an important skill for all book lovers to develop, no matter their age or reading levels. And I really hope that readers who aren’t always confident with pages full of text feel that our books are a welcoming place for them to have fun learning about the past.

I’m so in awe of the visual elements of these books and it is such a privilege to be a part of the team that makes them. The brilliant illustrations are done by The Histronauts’ co-creator, Grace Cooke, and the layout is designed by b small publishing’s fantastic Art Director, Vicky Barker. We use images to communicate a lot of historical information that I could not include in the text. The visual details are always the very first starting point for our research and Grace and I always begin with museum trips so that we can see the tangible elements of the worlds we want to explore. We find so many things that we want to incorporate and it’s amazing to be able to create such an inviting version of history that appeals to all kinds of readers. We’re also able to use images as a method of telling the story and developing our characters; we love sneaking little jokes or details in that you might not see on your first read through. It’s a wonderful medium to use and gives us so many layers for our readers to engage with.

7. Inclusion and diversity is vital in today’s books. How do you address this hugely important topic in writing about history for young people? 

It’s enormously important and there are lots of ways that we try to make our versions of history more inclusive. As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to me that we don’t limit our account of the past to one of the ruling classes. I think it’s really reductive to perceive the past only through the eyes of the wealthiest people who lived then, so we want to challenge that. We also always want to counter perceptions of what people in a certain time and place might have looked like. We want to show that people of colour lived in ancient Greece and were a part of the Roman Empire, it’s important to see that Vikings were not all blonde-haired and blue-eyed. The past was an enormously diverse place so we are determined to represent that and give our readers something to talk about.

8. Having known very little about the history of ancient Baghdad myself when I first came to teach it to my Year 6 class, I was so excited to learn along with them! Which historical periods would you love to see become more of a focus in schools, primary and secondary? 

Oh, there are so many! Personally, I would love to explore more about African history; I’m reading a great book about the Benin Kingdom right now and it’s making me very conscious of the scale of that gap in my knowledge. It’s exciting to start to remedy that! But as well as widening the global span of what we study, I’m also passionate about teaching different aspects of what we already learn. British history has been too narrow for too long and we are a nation full of cultures whose history deserves to be celebrated. There are so many diverse writers and historians who are now writing histories that have been hidden away and it’s really exciting to see the growth of important narratives that have been neglected for so long. Organisations like The Black Curriculum and The National Trust are doing amazing work to expand the way we look at the past so we should embrace their work and welcome them into our classrooms. 

9. And finally as a passionate historian and educator, a big question - what is the point of learning about history for young people?

A massive question! How long do we have?! I could give you so many reasons that are about studying the past to understand the present or seeing the political patterns that shape our society. But if I really have to sum up why I think young people should study history I would pick two areas that are most important to me: critical thinking and empathy. As a historian it’s so important to learn how to think critically and to assess the evidence that you work with. It’s crucial that children learn to question everything and history encourages them to do exactly that. And I want them to feel empathy for people who lived long ago. Whether they’re studying war, or royalty, or industry, or any aspect of history, I really want them to think about the human aspect of it. I want them to want to understand that history isn’t just dates or statistics, it’s real people, just like them, who lived and loved and struggled laughed and learned. Whether it’s their great-grandparents’ experience of migration or a local story about the coal mines or a stately home they visited on a school trip, everything that can be labelled ‘history’ has an important human story. It’s why I’m a historian.

No comments:

Post a Comment