Book Review: Horrible Histories: France by Terry Deary

Daniel heard Mike Duncan (a history podcaster who we both enjoy) mention this book as a child’s introduction to the French Revolution – so he requested it via interlibrary loan to review as a potential homeschool resource. Of course, that meant that I would review it as a potential homeschool resource – both since I would likely be the one using it and because I’m the one with more time for reading.

Horrible Histories: France delights in retelling all the, well, horrible things in France’s history through the nineteenth century. As such, it details not a few novel means of torturing and executing enemies, ridiculous and disgusting ways to cure diseases, and as many “potty” kings as possible. Yes, “potty” aka “mad” aka “crazy”. This is a British book, and includes not a few British colloquialisms.

Horrible Histories intersperses time-based chapters “Murky Middle Ages” and “Savage Seventeenth Century” with categorical chapters like “Kurious kings” and “Awful for Animals”. The majority of the chapters, up until the “Savage Seventeenth Century” are made up of anecdotes and trivia, such that I had a hard time placing the anecdotes within any historical context or meta-narrative. This, I think is the primary weakness of this book as a homeschool resource.

On the other hand, as Daniel pointed out when I discussed the book with him, many youngsters enter the world of history as lovers of trivia – and later go on to develop a thirst for the greater narrative (as he himself did.) This is very true. I can see a preteen boy loving the grotesque trivia, as well as the many little quizzes (not over the material, as if to test knowledge, but in order to impart information through a guessing game) and cartoons found throughout.

I don’t think I would deliberately put this book into a preteens hands, in part because its format isn’t my own favorite way of receiving information and in part because of the rather snotty attitude it has towards parents and teachers. That said, if I had a child who got interested in history and picked this up at the library, I doubt I would dissuade him from reading it. (Of course, if he started copping that sort of attitude toward me? We’d be having a little talk about the divine right of mothers.)

Rating: 2 stars
Category: Middle Grade History
Synopsis: A catalog of every gross or awful anecdote you can think of from France’s history through the eighteenth century.
Recommendation: I wouldn’t seek it out, but I also wouldn’t keep my child from reading it if he found it on his own.

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