Interview - Historian Dominic Sandbrook and his Adventures in Time
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, author, columnist and television presenter. He's also the writer of a brilliant new series of narrative history books for children, dubbed 'The Adventures in Time'. Published by Penguin, the Adventures in Time are designed to bring the past alive for today's children. They are aimed at young readers who enjoy Harry Potter, Matilda, Star Wars and The Hobbit. Which, surely is every young person - and older person - on planet Earth, right?
The tales pf Adventures in Time are written to be fun and exciting, with dramatic stories, colourful characters and thrilling cliff-hangers. But they are grounded firmly in fact, on exactly the same principle as history for adults.
We were lucky enough to have an extensive chat with Dominic over Zoom recently and we're delighted to be able to present the edited highlights of our interview with all our lovely readers - Yes, that's you, the person reading this, for you are lovely.
If you'd like to listen to the full interview, cram-packed with even more fascinating historical insights from Dominic, then you can; just click on Dominic's smiley face below. Or, you know, press play.
Anyway, that's enough waffle, check out the links to Adventures in Time* and then it's on with the show.
Let the interview, begin!
Adrian - So, the first thing we wanted to know about, what was it that originally inspired you to write a children’s history book?
Dominic – The easiest way to answer that is to say that I have a nine-year-old son. There’s actually a story behind it, a true story. The autumn before Covid arrived, my son, was then in year 3. Their topic for the term was evacuees. So they dressed up as evacuees for one day and that was their creative curriculum topic. At half term my wife and I took him to London to see the Imperial War Museum because he had said that he really enjoyed looking at the evacuees but they didn’t do anything about the fighting or the battles, typical small boy thing to say. He wanted a bit more tank action. So we said we’d go to the Imperial War Museum.
At the end we got to the gift shop and, as any parent will know, there was this sense of dread as you enter the shop and the child’s eyes light up at all of these guns and stuff. I said ‘I’ll get you a book on the Second World War’ but I couldn’t quite find the right thing. I wanted a story, the story of the Second World War, of which there are billions for adults. But I wanted one for children that would basically have Hitler and Churchill and so on and tell you the narrative in a really exciting way. I just couldn’t find it. I really wanted to find something that I would have read when I was eight or nine. And that my son Arthur would read. And the more I thought about it the more I thought that someone would have great fun writing a book like this. And then I thought why don’t I do it?
Adrian – How did you come to choose the topics of The Second World War and Henry the VIII?
Dominic – With the first two books I wanted to do the Second World War as it is so central to Britain’s sense of itself. It’s also an absolutely pivotal moment in the making of our world and it’s a great story. It’s a story with horror and heroism and drama and courage and it has a global canvass. You’ve got two colossal characters, that are known throughout the world, in Hitler and Churchill, but I could also immediately see how I could tell the story through ordinary people as well.
And then I wanted to write something quite different, and I know a lot of school children do the Tudors at school and obviously the Tudors are everywhere in our culture. People are fascinated by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. And I also thought that you had a great central character in Henry VIII. He’s very fat and comical but also very terrifying. So many children’s stories start with a journey and the child protagonist goes to a new land and sees a weird new world, be it Narnia or whatever, and we see it through their eyes. Immediately I thought the obvious way to start was with Catherine of Aragon as a teenager. She’s never left her home country before and she makes this journey to this weird cold place where everyone eats terrible food and goes to the loo in the street; which is England. And I thought, that’s the way in.
Adrian - You mentioned before about wanting to do a narrative history approach, which is a style rarely seen in kid’s history books, how did you work on changing or adapting your writing style for a younger audience?
Dominic - That's an excellent question. For people that don't know my specialism is writing colossally over long books about very short periods of modern British history, sort of the early seventies or the late seventies or something. So this might seem a big departure, but I have always done a lot of journalism. I've written for almost every paper and that in itself requires lots of different styles. I've also written for TV. So writing TV scripts you need to write an explanation of the winter of discontent to fit in 23 seconds. I got quite used to writing in a very, very condensed style as well as a very expansive one.
And when I started writing for children. I spent a lot of time lurking in my son's bedroom looking at the books on his shelves. Not just the history books. I was really thinking about fiction actually. When an adult reads nonfiction, they often read fiction as well. And great, great nonfiction writers often structure a historical narrative just like in fiction. You’ve got good characters, it’s exciting, and all that sort of thing. And so I thought I don't want this to feel different from a child reading Harry Potter. I think it must, in a similar way to adult nonfiction or fiction, it must feel the same. It must feel like it's a good story. The style needs to be very punchy because I'm trying to communicate lots of information. And to write in quite short paragraphs to make it as accessible as possible.
Then there’s the language. I don't want it to be overbearing. I don't want it to be overly literary. I want to be able to draw in as many children as possible, but without, as it were, dumbing it down. I thought there has to be a way to tell this story that makes it interesting for an eight or nine-year-old. I mean, that was probably the lower end and then the upper end is sort of 12 or 13.
Adrian - 39 in my case.
Dominic - That's good to hear. So, for instance, at the very beginning of the Second World War book, I thought, Hitler is your character, so it's mad not to tell the story through Hitler. And the way to make it interesting for children is to show him when he's young and to see how he is kind of sucked in. And I was thinking about Star Wars, you know, people go into the dark side. Well, that is a trajectory that children are actually very familiar with, it happens all the time in children's stories that a character who initially is set up as quite sympathetic goes to the dark side. And I thought, well, that's the way you tell the story and then I have to use that to frame events.
Where is Germany? What has happened to Germany in the First World War? What's happened to Germany after the First World War? How would you see it through ordinary Germans eyes? How do you explain the great depression to a nine year old? That was really tricky. So always thinking about how to explain those things and to make them accessible, but also to have this constant sense of narrative drama.
And also to remember, one of the big differences with writing for adults, is there's nothing I can tell them that an adult really doesn’t already know. So when I'm writing political history, nobody reads the book and doesn't know that Margaret Thatcher is going to win in 1979. But with this, it was really strange. I was talking to my editor a lot about it. He works normally on adult history books and he said, ‘it's so unusual. I've never worked on a book before where you don't know that Dunkirk is going to work’. So, that uncertainty, that narrative drive, was really at the absolute centre of the process.
Adrian - Was there anything that you felt you had to remove from the stories due to certain adult themes or ideas?
Dominic - Yeah, I thought about that a lot. My editors at Penguin were often quite squeamish about the violence and the child readers I gave to, they love it and they couldn't get enough. There was a bit where a man gets his jaw blown off at D-Day. And my editor at Penguin said that it was too much. I said, genuinely, this is the bit in the book that my son loves the most, this guy holding his jaw on!
I remember there's another bit that's famous in our household about Henry the Eighth having this tube shoved up his bottom and being cleansed with a mixture of honey and milk. And again, my editor put a big line by this and said, 'oh, this is much too much for children'. I was pretty adamant that I thought children would enjoy all this because I also remembered I would have loved it.
Adrian – How did you find out about Henry the 8th and his bottom being cleaned?
Dominic - Biographies of Henry mentions these things. It's basically that a lot of these things are reports from ambassadors. They are often the best sources for this period. Sometimes people write fragmentary memoirs. I think there are multiple sources that say Henry was very fat, about his diet and so on. We also know that where he travelled to that there were descriptions of him. For example, when the English invaded France and he's got his two sticks to hold him up because he's so fat. He's got a sort of megaphone, he's got a whistle, in case he falls over.
Adrian - Laura read the Second World War book and she loved all the personal anecdotes and stories. She really liked all those little viewpoints, and she wanted to know, how did you go about finding all of those different accounts?
Dominic - That's a good question. Basically I got lots of books or diaries. Did lots of searching for children's diaries. I found, for example, there's a Polish girl. When the Germans invaded Poland, she's in the countryside, she's about to go back. She got a new pencil case, new class, she's all excited. And then I thought that was an amazing story. So it was just a question of digging really. Almost all of these accounts have been published somewhere or other, in compilations or diaries or letters.
The girl who survives the bombing of Hiroshima, she became an anti-nuclear campaigner. She told her story again and again. So I was able to get six different versions of her telling her story and piece them together.
There was a guy at Pearl Harbour and this was a story which I thought was great. It was a black guy, Doris Miller. And he had always been slightly mistreated and not allowed to use the gun. And basically just made to do the laundry because he was black. But, when the Japanese attack, he grabs the gun and he shows tremendous courage. And again, that's a story that had since been told and retold. So I was able to dig that out.
Adrian - You've got books about Alexander the Great and the First World War coming out this autumn. You said you had another four planned, can I be cheeky and ask what they are?
Dominic - Cleopatra, I’m writing that right now. It's obviously Egypt, but she's also kind of Greek, so it's a mixture of Egypt and Greece, but of course, the great antagonists are the Romans. So you've got three great civilizations during this time. The Vikings, every child loves the Vikings. They are slightly different because there's obviously not just one story. So, with that one, I'm probably going to find two or three stories and the book will be slightly more episodic.
Then one of them will be on Napoleon and the French revolution. Now that's not a story that people often do at primary school but it has got a great trajectory. And then the fourth one, again, is something that people don't tend to do massively in schools, the Aztecs, because we're trying to get a balance between giving children what they're probably already likely to be doing, but also introducing them to new things.
Adrian – Thank you so much for your time Dominic, I’m sure Adventures in Time will be a huge success. We thoroughly enjoyed reading The Second World War and The Six Wives of Henry the VIII, and we can’t wait to read Alexander the Great and World War 1 when they come out later in the year too.
*The above links are affiliate links. That means if you buy something through the links above, we will earn a few quid at no extra cost to you. But it’s worth pointing out, we choose these products because we genuinely recommend them.
If you’re under the age of 16, it’s important that you get a parent or guardian’s permission before you buy anything over the internet.