Childhood and Youth
Apart from being Huck McKenna's personal hero, Terry Deary is one of the most successful British authors of all times, as well as a tv presenter, playwright, actor, theatre-director, museum manager and drama teacher. It's actually easier to name the few things we know Terry Deary isn't – he's not a historian, he's not a successful pupil and he's not particularly fond of authority such as politicians, teachers or the Queen. Which may be one of the reasons so many children love his books: He sticks it to the man – in other words: In his stories, the rich and powerful are always the villains. "The heroes are the little people", as Deary says. Little people like the ones he comes from.
He was born in 1946 in Sunderland in North East England. His mother managed a clothing store and his father owned a butcher's shop in a very poor neighbourhood. From the age of three, Deary helped his father in the shop – hard work which he enjoyed far more than his visits to Monkwearmouth Grammar School. He has often said that he hated school and did not learn anything useful there.
"My skill was writing. I was clearly good at it, getting good marks, but no teacher ever said to me: you should try to do something with this." The man who would later sell millions of copies of historical children's books received a D grade in A-level history, the equivalent of mark 4 in the German school system.. His controversial opinion on the school system has made headlines many times.
Hommage to the Custard Kid
Since no one told him to become a writer, he became an actor instead – after a short detour as a management trainee with the Electricity Board when he was 18. In 1972 he joined Theatre Powys in Mid-Wales and started touring town halls in Welsh villages to put on children's plays. At some point he began to write the scripts for the shows, noticing how good he was at putting ideas into scripts.
Until one day he found he couldn't let go of one particular character – The Custard Kid, a cowardly cowboy. Deary decided he wanted the Custard Kid to live on, even after the actors had put their costumes away. "So I wrote the book, and sent it to about 23 publishers who all said thanks, but no thanks. The 24th said yes."
A Not-So-Horrible History
It was the beginning of a long and very fruitful career. Terry Deary is a quick writer: He has published 239 fiction and non-fiction children's books in 36 years – a vast amount. By his own account, he is one of Britain's best-selling authors of the 21st Century and tenth most-borrowed author in British libraries in 2011.
He has also won several prizes. His most famous work are the books of the "Horrible Histories" series. They aim to teach "history with the nasty bits left in", i.e. present unusual, unpleasant or gory historical facts like Egyptian Pharaohs having official bottom wipers or the Romans enjoying garum, a sauce of "rotten fish guts". Thus they want to entertain the reader and at the same time, convey information. One of the audience the books aim to engage are "reluctant readers", children who don't like reading and enjoy it more if they can read one short passage at a time.
Apart from writing books, Terry Deary has also continued to write for the stage, turning his works into plays. He has also kept on acting, for instance in sketches for the "Horrible Histories" tv programme. Other works include computer games, audio books and historical exhibitions.
School: An Utter Waste of Time
Terry Deary is known to have some very strong and critical – some may even say provoking – opinions on schools. He has called them "pits of misery and ignorance" and said that he doesn't want his books to be read there or recommended by teachers – he'd rather prefer children would discover them on their own, in their free time. He fears that children may start disliking his books when they are part of a school curriculum because he believes that children like his books for being subversive and contrary to anything that might be taught in a school.
His main critique of the school system is that schools "teach what people in government tell them to teach. And people in government are complete twonks. What the hell do they know?" He thinks school is "an utter waste of 12 years of your life" because it fails to teach people useful life skills and does not develop their natural talents enough.
His drastic mistrust of schools may come from his own bad experiences when he was a pupil: "I was beaten, bullied and abused at school in the name of passing exams", he told a reporter in 2012. "It taught me nothing and I had to break out. So I started challenging authority at school, really, and just kind of never stopped."
More Rants from Deary
Incidentally, schools are not the only thing Terry Deary is not very fond of. He has famously ignored an invitation from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to No. 10 Downing Street, claiming that "the only politician ever to have entered parliament with honourable intentions" had been Guy Fawkes, author of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to blow up Westminster Palace, the House of Parliament. He does not think very highly of the Queen and the Royal Family. And in 2010 he made headlines by attacking historians as "nearly as seedy and devious as politicians", criticising them for picking an angle and selecting the facts to prove their case rather than writing objective history.
Terry Deary has proven himself to be an edgy, controversial character – much as his books are edgy and controversial, in that they try to present history in a more entertaining, scandalous way so to get readers hooked. Even now in his sixties, Deary does not shy away from a conflict. And though he has retired from writing children's books, we probably have not heard the last of him – from 2011 he will be dedicated to writing fiction and non-fiction for adults.