ALASTAIR HUMPHREYS: Great Adventurer and Worthy Winner

Last month, explorer Alastair Humphreys, together with illustrator Kevin Ward, won the 2019 Educational Writers’ Award for Alastair Humphreys’ Great Adventurers: The Incredible Expeditions of 20 Explorers. We caught up with Alastair to find out more about his winning book, and his reactions to winning the UK’s sole award for creative educational writing.

How did your winning book, Alastair Humphreys’ Great Adventurers, come about?

I loved reading books as a kid, but I was not exposed to the world of adventure and expedition writing until I was a young adult. I wanted to share some of the crazy heroes that have shaped my life, with a younger audience. The book was originally inspired by the old comics and annuals of my childhood, things like The Victor Book for Boys and the Alf Tupper comic strip. It evolved into something quite different, but when I had my first meetings with the publisher, it was these retro albums from the 1970s and 80s that I took in to spark the conversation.

How difficult was it to select the final 20 explorers? Was there a whittling down process?

It was easy for me to come up with a list of explorers because I just came up with a list of my heroes. What was difficult was then deciding painfully who to leave out! My aim was to cover all different kinds of expedition and journey, making sure that all the parts of the world and all demographics of people who like adventure were included. The nature of adventure writing, and the history of expeditions and exploration, mean that many of the star characters from history were white wealthy men. I wanted this book to be more inclusive of people today who enjoy adventures, so there are lots of women featured, also young people, old people, and a heroic disabled man who travels around the world by wheelchair. I also wanted to reflect the history of the climbing of Everest through the local people who make it all possible and therefore chose a Nepalese climber to represent that.

You mention that you had naively thought writing an illustrated book for children would be easy, and that you were wrong. What was difficult? And how did you ensure that the book would have bags of appeal and inspiration for the intended young audience?

I did think it would be easy! Because there are hardly any words I thought I could rattle them out over a cup of tea and then leave the artist to get on and do all the hard work. It certainly is true that the illustrator, Kevin Ward, bore the brunt of the hard work of bringing this book to life. But the part that I found hard as a writer and as selector of the adventures was trying to convey the adventures that I love and know so well in a visual form. I have no artistic skill. So I couldn’t really describe what I wanted to be drawn. This must have been deeply irritating for poor Kevin. But we got there in the end.

I tried to ensure this book would appeal to young kids through talking to lots of children, and also because I trained as a teacher and have visited more than 1,000 schools to talk about adventure. So, I have plenty of experience of what excites kids. Plus I am also quite a big kid myself so I have learned that if it excites me then it will also excite a child.

Do you think that there is a particular need for children to think of broader horizons for themselves these days?

Children live such sheltered lives these days. Every waking minute is scheduled, every activity is planned, every risk is managed and minimised. Children have very little time in which to dream and dither and dare. And that is a big problem.

What does it mean to you to win the Educational Writers’ Award?

Winning this award is fantastic because this book is deliberately trying to encourage children to approach self-learning in a very different way to normal schooling. I want kids to be bold and a little bit reckless, to not follow the herd and to dare to dream of doing something eccentric and unusual and challenging in their lives. This for me is education. And so I’m delighted that this award validates that.

Alastair Humphreys was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. He has cycled the world, rowed the Atlantic Ocean and is also a speaker and author. His podcast, Living Adventurously, features interviews with ordinary people trying to live lives a little less ordinary.