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Helen has lived in Devon for eight years
It's a Tough Job making history fun
Devon-based writer Helen Greathead talks about writing her new series of history books for children.
When writer Helen Greathead gave up history at the age of 13 she couldn't possibly have envisaged that as an adult she would be making her living finding engaging ways of getting children involved in the subject.
Helen, who moved to Plymouth from London in 2000, has recently written four books looking at the lives of a gladiator; a fighter pilot; a pirate and a knight under the umbrella title Tough Jobs.
The books were launched in paperback at a pirate-themed party at Waterstones in Plymouth on 26 November 2008 hosted by Helen - who boasts an impressive track record of being involved in the production of non-fiction books.
She worked as an editor at Scholastic for 14 years, starting as desk editor and ending up as editorial director non-fiction and as well as commissioning the first Horrible Histories titles she was also instrumental in the Horrible Sciences, Horrible Geographies, The Knowledge series, Dead Famous and Top Tens.
The books were launched at a pirate party
She had already worked with Terry Deary on a number of projects when he came up with the idea for what would become the hugely popular Horrible History books.
"And I just thought this is how I would have liked history to have been taught to me and if it had been maybe I would have carried on with the subject.
"We did a couple of books and they did quite well and then we did a couple more which also did quite well and then I went off travelling for a few months.
"I faxed the office when I was planning to come back and just to check there was still a job for me and they said the Horrible Histories series had gone mad and they needed me back as soon as possible and it just took off from there."
Her own children Bertie, 8, and Gideon, 6, have read and enjoyed her new books at various stages of their development and Helen is relishing shifting her focus from editing to writing the four books - which were originally going to be called Big Jobs.
"It came from a running joke we had at Scholastic. Each time we had to come up with a new series, we used to say 'let's call them Big Jobs'."
But the name was eventually ruled out when the books were tested in schools.
"The name didn't prove very popular with school librarians," Helen laughs.
"So I came up with Tough Jobs and I think that has actually turned out to be a much better name in the end.
"I like being able to concentrate on one thing for a period of time, whereas in the office I always felt pulled in so many different directions.
"And I enjoy being able to immerse myself in research and really get to grips with a particular subject, but sometimes I do find writing frustrating."
The Tough Jobs books took a great deal of research and Helen said she sometimes felt a bit hamstrung by the 5,000 word limit.
"I had to do as much research as if I was doing a 20,000 word book and it was hard to know what to leave out.
Helen met a fighter pilot during her research
"The gladiator was the hardest because it was the furthest back in history and I really wanted to focus on the day to day stuff because that's what seems to grab children's attention.
"The fighter pilot was the most enjoyable one to write. I was able to speak to an actual fighter pilot who was just fascinating and the couple of hours spent talking to him was an excellent starting point for that book.
"It's obviously slightly harder to speak to an actual knight, pirate or gladiator so those books were much more of a challenge."
The subject of the books were chosen with boys in mind as they tend to be more reluctant readers but they are proving just as popular with girls too.
"Certainly when I visit schools the girls seem to get as much enjoyment from them as the boys," says Helen.
As well as the Tough Jobs books - which are published by A&C Black - Helen has also recently written a local history picture book for Groundwork in Plymouth, How A Digger Ate Our Wall which tells the fascinating story of Plymouth's own "Berlin Wall" in Devonport.
She also creates the puzzle page in the DFC - a weekly children's comic launched earlier this year.
She will be editing a cartoon strip for the comic for next year and already has a number of ideas for future books in the Tough Jobs series.
"I would really like to do some more, there is definitely loads of potential there."
And she has a secret formula for keeping the books interesting.
"I always include a bit in the books about toilets, that always seems to be a source of fascination!"
last updated: 27/11/2008 at 17:50