Interview: Dr Joan Haig discusses her children's book 'Talking History' - The potent power of speech
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
Some of the most memorable moments of history are nothing more than one person talking to a bunch of other people. It sounds weird when you put it like that, less so when you consider that a lot of history is just the study of what people said, the things they spoke or wrote down. There are some fantastic and vitally important speeches out there, some that even changed the world. Which is quite a thing for a sound emitted by some vibrating vocal cords!
Anyway, knowledge of important speeches is vital to any child's understanding of history. So, what better way to learn about them than in a fun illustrated history book for children? I don't think there is a better way, which is why our eyeballs were supremely impressed by 'Talking History - 150 Years of Speakers and Speeches'.
We had a chat with one of the authors of the book, Dr Joan Haig to find out more about the power of speech. Check out the exchange of our oscillating vocal cords below.
Imagining History: Please could you tell our readers a little more about your book Talking History: 150 years of speakers and speeches?
Joan Haig: Yes! This book, which I cowrote with Joan Lennon, presents 16 incredible speeches that brought about or marked major changes in the world. Readers might recognise some of them, but we present a variety of people and issues so there are bound to be some surprises, too. The illustrations by André Ducci capture the changing moods of the different moments in history and are a real treat.
There’s been a lot of speakers and speeches over the last 150 years, how did you go about whittling the number down to 16 speeches?
With difficulty! We aimed to have a balance of men and women, and we wanted to make sure that speeches were from a range of voices around the globe. This helped us in the selection process. There were a few ‘must haves’ that either Joan Lennon or I just knew we wanted in there. But you are right – there are many, many more, and we hope this books encourages young readers to search for others.
Which speeches almost made the cut but just missed out?
We talked about Sojourner Truth, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Taylor Richardson, David Attenborough… There were over 100 names on the long list!
That's one lost list! So, how did you go about researching the speeches?
The wonderful thing about speeches is that the primary source is so magical. Where recordings exist, you can listen to the voice of the actual person – it’s a powerful experience. Our close analysis came from listening, and from reading the original text. We read a lot of secondary sources like academic papers and history books written by experts in the field, and we were lucky to have many of them come in at the end to check we had done justice to the stories. (You can find some of the experts’ names listed at the back of the book.)
Did you discover any fascinating trivia about the speakers that you didn’t know before you started your research?
Absolutely! Little gems popped up often. For example, Lincoln’s love of cats (his cat was allowed to dine with the family at the table in the White House) or Churchill’s specially designed false teeth to help him retain his lisp (which sold at auction in 2015 for £15,000 – eeew!).
Man, I hope no one uses them! Your book has gorgeous artwork, could you tell us a little more about the process of turning verbal speeches into a graphic novel?
This was the part of the book that required teamwork. Our editors and the lead designer, Adam Allori, worked with us to shape our ideas and words into spaces that worked with the illustrations they and André had in mind. The designer and illustrator did a lot of research of their own to make sure their images were accurate.
Sometimes, the page layout was driven by the text, and at other times we had to make the text work for the page layout. One thing I love is the way André is able to depict the mood and moment of the spoken word through snapshots of the scene, expressions and mannerisms of the speakers, and his carefully chosen colours.
The fantastic results of your collaboration are clear to see. What are some of the most vital messages you hope your book (and the speeches within) will share with young readers?
Although the speeches in this book were made by ‘famous’ people, they were not only famous because of what they said – they acted to make changes and to make the world a better place.
I would love young readers to reflect on their own voices and actions and to see that – as Angela Merkel says in her speech – the world needs ‘every helping hand’. I would also love it if the speeches encouraged young people to think critically about what people say and how they say it. There are a lot of persuasive words spoken and broadcast that young people need to learn how to interrogate.
If you could get a time machine and travel to meet any of the historical figures in your book for a chat, who would you choose and why?
Hands down, Nelson Mandela. He was a hero to me growing up in Zambia in the 1980s. Zambia was very poor at the time and South Africa seemed like a place of plenty. But South Africans suffered a different kind of poverty – a poverty of justice and racial equality. Every time I read his words, and the testimonies of the others in the Rivonia Trial, I get shivers.
Finally, could you give us a sneak peek into the future and tell us what you are working on next?
Well, we are currently deep in the research and writing process for another title with Templar Books – and we’re thrilled to have André working with us again on the illustrations. I can’t say too much just now, but expect a longer timespan (2500 years, not 150!) and more fascinating life stories from around the world!
Awesome! Thanks so much for answering our questions Joan!
If you'd like to find out more about 'Talking History - 150 Years of Speakers and Speeches' then please click here to head to Bookshop.org
If you want to say hello to Joan Haig, you can find her on Twitter here @joanhaigbooks and
If you'd like to say hello to Joan Lennon, head on over to Instagram here @joan.lennon.359
or you can visit Joan Haig's website www.joanhaigbooks.com
or Joan Lennon's website www.joanlennon.co.uk
to find out more about their books. Enjoy!