Being a father, you continue to seek out tools to help your children grow and learn. I stumbled across “The Histronauts: A Viking Adventure” one day and it immediately captured my attention. A children’s book aimed to teach the younger generation history in a relatable and fun way? Yes, please! After reading it myself and seeing my kids reaction to each page, I knew this book was a slam dunk. From the colorful artistic pages full of life, to the fun story of the Histronauts characters, to the well researched facts and activities to interact with, I could not recommend this book enough to any parent out there.
Frances Durkin is a doctoral researcher of medieval history from the University of Birmingham and author of The Histronauts book series. I was delighted to speak with Frances about the type of research she conducted in “A Viking Adventure”, her motivation in writing children’s books, the characters of the Histronauts, the art by illustrator Grace Cooke, and more.
Going Viking: For the people who don’t know, what is the Histronauts?
Frances Durkin: The Histronauts is a series of children’s books about a group of modern-day children (and their pet cat) who travel back in time to different periods of history. Our latest book is about the Vikings and in it the Histronauts meet a Norse girl whose father builds longships. Through her they find out about how people lived their lives: what they ate, where they lived, how they travelled and what the world was like through their eyes. Our readers share in their learning experience by following their story. The books are designed as graphic novels, they are full of detailed illustrations and we’ve packed them with as many facts and activities as we could fit inside.
I believe it is very important to implement reading and history at an early age. Stories woven like this can leave a lasting impact on how a child might remember periods of history. What motivated you to write a children’s book?
My own childhood. I wouldn’t be a historian now if I hadn’t loved it so much as a child. I was extremely lucky to grow up in a part of the world which was very connected to its history. I was never far from a castle or an old roman wall. But storytelling was absolutely at the heart of why I was so interested. Sherwood Forest was on my doorstep and the stories of Robin Hood were my first step towards ultimately becoming a medievalist. I loved finding out more about what the world around me would have been like in previous centuries. I’ve always wanted to focus on engaging a younger audience because I want to be able to inspire that same enthusiasm for history which was such a big part of my life growing up.
My kids really enjoyed the Histronauts. I believe it made the learning part more accessible to them because they connected with these characters. How did you come up with this group of characters?
I’m so pleased that they liked them! We really wanted them to be engaging and relatable. It was important to us that our readers see themselves as an extension of the Histronaut team. The four characters we have came about from the initial collaboration between me and illustrator Grace Cooke. We had a bigger group of characters to choose from at one point in the early stages of creating the books. In the end these were the characters that we loved the most. We knew their personalities and how they would respond to being in these extraordinary time-travelling situations. We’re both big sisters so we were really drawn to having a sibling relationship in the book as well as a little friendship group, so we have a brother and sister, and their best friend. And we love animals so it was completely natural to have a pet which travelled with them. I really wanted to name the cat Herodotus after the ancient Greek historian and a friend of mine brilliantly suggested that we shorten his name to Hero.
As they were concerned about the Histronauts, I was taken aback by how detailed you made this book between the artwork and all the information that was provided. I was enjoying it just as much as they were, maybe even more. What grabbed your attention to begin the research about the Vikings?
The Vikings were amazing! They were really high on the list of subjects that we wanted to cover when we first came up with the idea for the books. We make the decision about the topics with our UK publisher and they’re brilliant at listening to our reasons for choosing the periods of history that we want to explore. This is our third book and we knew that we wanted to travel back to a time which offered our story a wealth of colour and adventure. I grew up close enough to York that visits to the Jorvik Centre were a treat when I was younger. Jorvik allows you to travel through a reconstruction of the Viking city on the site where the archaeological excavations took place. It brilliantly builds something entirely real and relatable out of the evidence. The Saga Museum in Iceland does something similar and having these tangible reconstructions really sparked my imagination to step into the Viking world. There’s something so incredibly fascinating about the sense of adventure that the Vikings encapsulate. To be able to fill a boat with as much as you can, point it at the horizon, and just keep going fills me with awe.
There’s a tremendous amount of research that can be seen through this book on a variety of topics in the Viking Age. What type of sources did you look at to help write this book?
I started by reading as much as I could. I focused on books, journal articles and other academic research to build the text of the story and the boxes of information which are interspersed throughout the books. Library catalogues are my usual starting points and I read as many recent journal articles as I can get my hands on. Everything I present in the book is meticulously researched. That does sometimes mean that I have to make choices to omit something when the knowledge that we have isn’t concrete enough to present something as fact. For example I would have loved to write about female Viking warriors. The scholarly debate surrounding the Birka burial findings is fascinating, but it didn’t meet the criteria I set myself for including female warriors as a given fact. However, I did get to have our little Norse girl tell The Histronauts that there are stories of Viking warrior women. And I have to be very aware of my audience. One of my favourite pages in the book is an illustration of a boat burial and of course my research included Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s account from the tenth century. It’s an extraordinary version of the event but not at all suitable for children, even the ones who really love their gory stories.
When you started “A Viking Adventure” did you know a lot about this time, or did the research you conducted for this book really open your eyes about who the Vikings really were?
I certainly thought I knew lots about the period and the people before I started, but researching the book opened my eyes to a wealth of fascinating new information. As I’m sure you, and anyone who has engaged with a research project knows, one question inevitably leads to another. New things are being discovered all the time and that makes being a historian endlessly rewarding.
The art in “A Viking Adventure” is phenomenal. Grace Cooke really did a great job in portraying the life of the Vikings with the care of the details she drew. How much archaeological research went into recreating some of the illustrations like the longships?
She’s amazing! Her work opens up a whole world of visual communication which is so key to these books. The Histronauts books have two research stages; once I’ve researched and written the story and text, then Grace and I work together on investigating the details of the visual elements for her illustrations. We both drew on as much archaeological information as we could with everything from the largescale objects such as the longships, to the smaller more intimate objects such as the combs and jewellery. Museum exhibitions have always been the starting point for our research as they help us to build a visual idea of what we’re going to work on. When we first started this book, we took a trip up to York to see the Jorvik Centre together, we visited the Vale of York Hoard, the British Museum, and we explored museum catalogues online. We built up a visual scrapbook of our research that we could refer back to. Archaeology is absolutely key to this. To go back to the boat burial illustration I mentioned earlier, we looked very closely at the information about the unearthed boats such as those found at Gokstad, Oseberg and Scar. We used these to build up our image and to make sure it contained as much information as possible. We really wanted to be respectful of those burials and Grace has created an image which I find incredibly moving.
Besides the Vikings, you also have “An Egyptian Adventure” and “A Roman Adventure” books. What time period would you like to explore next with the Histronauts?
Oh, where do I start?! Our fourth book is about ancient Greece. I had a great time researching and writing it and I can’t wait to see the illustrations bring everything to life. My PhD research is based in medieval Europe so I would love to explore that period with The Histronauts. I think they’d have a great time in the Middle Ages and I have so many ideas – maybe too many – I might need three books for that one. But there are so many other, less familiar periods which I think would be incredible to explore. I’m also very greedy to see what the Grace Cooke versions of different periods of history look like.
You can find “The Histronauts: A Viking Adventure” on Amazon and Amazon UK, along with their other two books, “The Histronauts: An Egyptian Adventure” and “The Histronauts: A Roman Adventure.” For more information, go to https://www.thehistronauts.com/ and on Twitter at @HistoriaFrankie and @TheHistronauts.