Horrible Books Just the Ticket for Traveling Boys

The Tower Bridge, London
The Tower Bridge


Destination: London

Books: Loathsome London by Terry Deary from the Horrible Histories

Various Titles from the You Wouldn’t Want To Be… series for children

“Horrible” History Makes Traveling to Britain with Kids Fun

A GUEST POST by Mara Gorman

Grownups tend to think that castles, suits of armor, and ancient towers are automatically interesting to the younger set. The fact is, to most children one old building looks much like another, even if they both happen to be ancient castles. And without understanding what suits of armor and lances were used for, what fun are they to look at?

I knew that our trip to England in the summer of 2010 was going to be heavy on the history – we would be touring the Tower of London, the Globe Theatre, the Roman Baths in Bath, and Windsor Castle, not to mention any number of colleges in Oxford. My children are both in elementary school and have started studying American history, but their understanding of Britain was limited to knowing that they wore red coats when they came to fight us. How to make those buildings come alive for my children so that they seemed like more than a pile of stones?

If you guessed that reading some great books before we left was in order, you are correct. In particular I turned to two series for children, both of which use humor and comic-book style illustrations to great effect.

My older son, Tommy, who had just turned eight at the beginning of the summer, is an avid independent reader. I knew that if I could find an engaging history book to leave by his bed, he would soon be learning about Britain without any effort on my part. I chose from the Horrible Histories series, British books that use a humorous approach and a focus on the gross-out factors that history provides in spades. Loathsome London by Terry Deary offers chapters with titles such as “Terrible Tower” and “Terrible Tudor and Slimy Stuarts timeline”

Tower of London
Mara's boys at the Tower of London

The book opens with a cheerful disclaimer that it is exploring history in a one-sided and disgusting manner and then goes on to talk about things like your choice of execution types at the Tower of London – beheading, smothering, stabbing, drowning, or falling. Of course, woven into all of this are stories like that of such notables as Anne Boleyn, Edward V, and the Earl of Essex, so the reader gets a historical overview of the city and its rulers. We learn too about the Black Plague, the Great Fire, the Industrial Age, and the Blitz, not to mention any number of lesser known stories villainy, corruption, and “lousy jobs” such as tarring the heads that went on the spikes lining the bridges into London to, er, preserve them for posterity and public gawking.

Despite the gruesome topics, the tone of the book is light throughout. There are numerous illustrations, asides, lists, funny asides, and boxed facts designed to engage even reluctant readers.

(From the Stone Age through modern times, you can find Horrible Histories on any number of topics – explore the Horrible Histories website to find online games and even clips from TV shows based on the books).

Globe Theater, London
Tommy at the Globe Theater

Since five-year-old Teddy wasn’t quite ready for the Horrible Histories, I also made sure we had some of the You Wouldn’t Want to Be… books lying around as well. You Wouldn’t Want to Be Mary Queen of Scots and You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Medieval Knight by Fiona MacDonald were our go-to texts, and on our visit to the Globe Theatre we also picked up You Wouldn’t Want to be a Tudor Actor in Shakespeare’s Theatre by Jacqueline Morley.

Written in the second person and designed to help children imagine themselves living as a queen, knight, or apprenticed actor long ago, these books are also humorous and full of colorful illustrations. “Handy hints” like “To try and ward off plague fumes, hold a pomander (a spice-scented ball) to your nose when you go out” provide additional information about what life was like. And contrary to the titles, not all of the information provided here is negative, just realistic and highlighting the contrast between life then and life now.

The consequence of arriving in London well prepared was that both boys were fascinated with British history. They spent hours looking at all of the kings’ armor in the new and impressive Tower of London exhibit. Tommy was especially thrilled to see the beautiful suit worn by Henry VIII, whom he knew like an old pal. When we arrived at the Houses of Parliament, he remembered that Guy Fawkes had planned to blow it up and relished the gory story shared with gusto by our guide from Fat Tire Bike tours.

In particular, both boys developed affection for Lord Nelson after hearing the story of his death at Trafalgar while standing at the base of his column. We had to visit his grave in Saint Paul’s Cathedral and examine his coat (complete with a hole from the bullet that killed him) in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Although they hadn’t read about Nelson in any of the books I gave them, I’m pretty sure that priming the pump with lots of history before our trip helped make them receptive to learning about the places we visited. And their reward for cheerfully tromping through all those castles and towers? A visit to Legoland, Windsor on our last day. Where in spite of the rides, their favorite thing to do was look at replicas of London’s famous buildings. Mission accomplished.


Legoland, London
Mara's boys at Legoland
Mara Gorman

Mara Gorman’s blog The Mother of All Trips offers stories, tips, and inspiration for traveling parents. When she’s not on the road with Tommy (8) and Teddy (5), she can be found at home in Delaware.

What great book recommendations for boys and for the family travel library! I wish I had found books like this when my boys were small, but I’ll be laying in wait as soon as my grandsons are old enough. And what a smart mom you are, Mara. Thanks so much for sharing these good ideas and your wonderful family travel experiences. The photos belong to Mara, also (except for the first one which comes from a post by Julie, the Lady from London). Please don’t copy without  permission.

Here are some other books for traveling children:

Mara’s guest post on Monet’s Garden

guest post by Brette Sember on Maine

guest post by Christine Gross-Loh on helping children adjust to Japan

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

11 thoughts on “Horrible Books Just the Ticket for Traveling Boys

  1. What an EXCELLENT post!!!!!! Seriously had never heard of these books- and I loved all the great ideas.

    1. Glad everyone is liking Mara’s post. She is a terrific travel writer. That’s why I read her blog every day, even though I do not have small children.

  2. I agree that books can set a stage. I often choose a theme to read prior to a trip. I will have to give the Horrible Histories a look. Thank you so much for sharing! -r

    1. Cool. I didn’t think about the sexist implications of my title, because as a little girl I was more into Lassie and less into blood and gore, but I think it is neat that she likes these books. Anything to get them reading and wandering, right?

  3. Books are a great way to set the stage for a pending trip. I remember my boy begging to go to Egypt after reading several stories based there. I like the sound of Mara’s blog and will go check it out.

    1. Sarah: I think that is so cool that your boys wanted to go to Egypt after reading stories. Did they ever get to go? I imagine the current unrest in the middle east would provide a learning opportunity for kids who have read books about those countries, too.

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