Great reads

Best-sell­ing chil­dren’s au­thor Francesca Si­mon shares her feel­ings about the 20th an­niver­sary of her fic­tional char­ac­ter Hor­rid Henry.

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We all know Hor­rid Henry, don’t we? The imp­ish whirl­wind of stripes and scruffy-haired mis­chief who burst into the lives of kids world­wide in 1994 and left mud­dled par­ents won­der­ing why his well-be­haved brother, Per­fect Peter, couldn’t have had more of an im­pact on their giddy off­spring.

Even if the time­less tales en­com­pass­ing Hor­rid Henry’s en­coun­ters with Moody Mar­garet, his love of stink bombs and end­less ap­petite for pranks came too late to en­joy in your own child­hood, its fair to say your chil­dren, nieces or neph­ews are prob­a­bly big fans. Ei­ther way Henry’s men­ac­ing lit­tle face has surely popped up un­ex­pect­edly from time to time dur­ing his reign as the naugh­ti­est kid on the block.

This year marks the se­ries’ 20th an­niver­sary. And in two decades more than 20 mil­lions books have been sold world­wide in 24 coun­tries and trans­lated into 27 dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

It comes as a sur­prise, then, that Henry’s cre­ator and driv­ing force, Francesca Si­mon, never en­vis­aged Henry’s sto­ries wou go fur­ther than the first book.

“It was sup­posed to be just one story,” Si­mon admits. “When I sub­mit­ted the first draft to my edi­tor, Ju­dith, at Orion Pub­lish­ing, she felt it wasn’t long enough. I sat down and wrote a few more sto­ries and that’s why each book has four sto­ries.”

Si­mon kept writ­ing and soon had enough ma­te­rial to pub­lish two more books. “The se­ries only took off af­ter the fourth book, though, Hor­rid Henry’s Nits. It took me a lit­tle while to find my voice and be­come es­tab­lished as a writer.”

And Si­mon admits good tim­ing was on her side, too. “I think the sus­tained suc­cess of the Hor­rid Henry books was sparked dur­ing a golden era for chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture,” she says.

“It be­gan with JK Rowling’s’ Harry Pot­ter se­ries mak­ing it to the best­seller list – some­thing that was un­heard of ear­lier.”

But while Henry has now reached adult­hood in real terms, Si­mon has al­ways kept time frozen in her books. “He doesn’t age and is not go­ing to,” she says. “He’s some­where around eight and his brother Peter around six.”

Si­mon felt it was im­por­tant not to clar­ify his age, so as not to alien­ate any of Henry’s fans, whom she says range

‘I’ve writ­ten all my life. I started when I was about eight. Not good books, but I was writ­ing’

from chil­dren of four to young adults. “The older read­ers are those who grew up with Hor­rid Henry and even now in their teens and early 20s still queue for the books,” she says. In June, book 23, en­ti­tled Hor­rid Henry’s Krazy Ketchup, was re­leased. This brings the to­tal story count to 92, but will she stop there? “No, I’d like to do more Hor­rid Henry books,” she says. “It would be nice to have 25 story books and 100 sto­ries. I have ideas scrib­bled in a note­book, which will give me enough sto­ries to make it to 100. Af­ter that, who knows?”

Si­mon may be pleas­antly sur­prised by the longevity of the se­ries, but men­tion the spin-offs – an an­i­mated tele­vi­sion se­ries (2006) and film adap­ta­tion (2011) and she vis­i­bly shud­ders. Would she rather for­get both?

“I had noth­ing to do with the tele­vi­sion se­ries or film,” she in­sists. “I’m more in­ter­ested in books and the adap­ta­tions weren’t faith­ful to the books. I am not happy about it, but there is noth­ing I could do, once you sell the rights – that is it. You have no con­trol over what hap­pens next.” The 59-year-old Amer­i­can, who was born in St Louis, Mis­souri, be­gan writ­ing long be­fore her fa­mous char­ac­ter came into ex­is­tence.

“I have al­ways writ­ten,” she says. My dad [screen­writer, direc­tor and play­wright Mayo Si­mon] is a writer so it has al­ways seemed a nor­mal thing for me to do. I’ve writ­ten all my life. I started writ­ing when I was about eight years old. Not very good books, but I cer­tainly was writ­ing.”

Si­mon grad­u­ated from Yale with an hon­ours de­gree in An­glo-Saxon medieval his­tory and lit­er­a­ture and went on to do post­grad­u­ate stud­ies in me­dieval­ism at the UK’s Ox­ford Univer­sity.

Fin­ish­ing her stud­ies in the late 1970s, she em­barked on a lu­cra­tive ca­reer as a me­dieval­ist, but then left it to teach English as a for­eign lan­guage in Lon­don, be­fore work­ing as a free­lance jour­nal­ist for The Sun­day Times, Guardian, Mail on Sun­day, Tele­graph and US Vogue. Si­mon mar­ried Martin Stamp, a Bri­tish soft­ware de­vel­oper, in 1986. They now live in North Lon­don with their 25-year-old son, Joshua. And af­ter 30 years liv­ing in Lon­don, Si­mon says, “it now feels like home”. And she com­pares it favourably: “In the UK peo­ple are more open to the idea of a mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety than they are in the US,” she says. “Amer­ica can be very in­su­lar, they don’t look be­yond their own bor­ders that much. Every­one comes and is meant to be Amer­i­can and that’s it. There isn’t much in­ter­est in the rest of the world.”

De­spite her strong back­ground in writ­ing, it wasn’t un­til 1993 that Si­mon’s first work was pub­lished in the form of a pic­ture book called Papa For­got. It told the story of “a grand­fa­ther who is look­ing af­ter a child and has for­got­ten the in­struc­tions that the par­ents had given him.” The book was pub­lished by Ran­dom House and il­lus­trated by Nigel

McMullen. “Af­ter the birth of my son I read a lot of chil­dren’s books to him and ideas for sto­ries kept flood­ing to me,” she says. “Some of the ideas for my first book were in­spired by the sit­u­a­tions I en­coun­tered with my son.”

She re­calls, for ex­am­ple, a day when her fa­ther was babysit­ting Joshua and brought him back “re­ally dirty”. When she asked her fa­ther if he hadn’t seen the bibs, his re­ply was sim­ply ‘Oh no, I for­got’.” And so Papa For­got was born.

But why did it take so long be­fore her Hor­rid Henry books were pub­lished? “I think it took long for me, be­cause I wasn’t writ­ing great sto­ries [at the time],” she admits.

Hor­rid Henry came about when Si­mon wanted to write about a house­hold with a good and bad child. “Fam­i­lies are a source of com­edy be­cause they are about peo­ple trapped to­gether,” she says. “Only the par­ents chose to be there and the rest of you are stuck with these peo­ple that you might not nec­es­sar­ily like.”

This time, Si­mon drew in­spi­ra­tion for the sto­ries from her life ex­pe­ri­ences grow­ing up and not Joshua’s child­hood. “The char­ac­ter Hor­rid Henry is ac­tu­ally based on me,” she says. “I was very good at school and bad at home.”

She re­calls shar­ing a bed­room with her younger sis­ter who was “very messy and liked go­ing to bed early, at 8pm.” Paus­ing for a sec­ond she laughs, “I was ac­tu­ally hor­ri­ble to my sib­lings; I didn’t want to play with them so I know a lot about sib­ling ri­valry.”

Si­mon’s play­wright fa­ther and a stay-at-home mum saw Si­mon and her sib­lings hav­ing a some­what bo­hemian up­bring­ing. They spent time in Cal­i­for­nia be­fore mov­ing to New York, then Eng­land and, fi­nally, Paris. Although Si­mon says she al­ways iden­ti­fied more with life on West Coast of Amer­ica. “I loved the other places, but noth­ing beats the sunny days on the beach,” she re­calls, with a smile. “Cal­i­for­nia was a vi­brant pul­sat­ing place. I liked its en­ergy. It was also full of creative peo­ple.”

The Hor­rid Henry se­ries also drew in­spi­ra­tion from Amer­i­can sit­com Se­in­feld. “I bor­row the ‘no hugs and no morals’ from Se­in­feld to make the books more com­pelling and be­liev­able,” she says. “I usu­ally think: ‘What would Henry do in such a sit­u­a­tion?’”

Si­mon has also found the time to re­lease more pic­ture books and is in the mid­dle of another fic­tional se­ries aimed at chil­dren, aged eight and above. Her strong in­ter­est in Norse mythol­ogy and ad­ven­ture shine through in the first in­stal­ment in the new se­ries, The

‘If your chil­dren read a book, read it your­self and dis­cuss it, and let them rec­om­mend books’

Sleep­ing Army. “I like [this] story, which is based on an­cient leg­ends, be­cause a sleep­ing army can be found in dif­fer­ent cul­tures, for ex­am­ple in China there are Ter­ra­cotta War­riors while Eng­land has King Arthur’s army sleep­ing un­der Tin­tagel,” she says.

But ul­ti­mately Si­mon, says, “Kids love a good story that makes them laugh.” She adds, “They love trick­ster char­ac­ters like Hor­rid Henry, who is nei­ther a hero nor an anti-hero, be­cause they speak to the re­bel­lious child in every­one. He’s a men­ace with no re­deem­ing fea­tures, but Henry rarely sets out to cause trou­ble, he merely re­sponds to sit­u­a­tions. I be­lieve if chil­dren didn’t find my books in­ter­est­ing they wouldn’t read them.”

Si­mon thinks Bri­tish au­thor Steven But­ler does child hu­mour bril­liantly with his well-known funnies The Wrong

Pong and The Di­ary of Dennis the Men­ace. “I think he’s bril­liant,” she says. “He has a great way of con­nect­ing with his young read­ers. He writes books that are in­cred­i­ble and en­joy­able when read out loud to chil­dren.”

Story time is some­thing Si­mon has very strong feel­ings to­wards. “I love to see magic hap­pen­ing to or­di­nary chil­dren as they en­joy a book,” she says. “Par­ents should read aloud to their kids and teach them to value books. You shouldn’t stop read­ing to them when they learn to read, just read books that are too dif­fi­cult for them to read.”

And in Si­mon’s opinion par­ents should lead by ex­am­ple. “If your chil­dren read a book you should read it your­self and dis­cuss it with them, and let your child rec­om­mend books for you,” she ad­vises. “I want kids to learn to read and love books. I read a lot to my son Joshua – ev­ery­thing from Lit­tle House on the Prairie by Laura In­galls Wilder, CS Lewis books, Philip Pull­man’s books like The Ruby in the Smoke and fairy tales. He loved pic­ture books like The Very Hun­gry Cater­pil­lar by Eric Carle and The Gruf­falo by Ju­lia Don­ald­son.”

Just as she wants peo­ple to keep read­ing there’s still a lot Si­mon wants to write.

“I’ve al­ways writ­ten, so it’s not like I have to mo­ti­vate my­self. My love of books and writ­ing are the big mo­ti­va­tors.”

At the mo­ment she is work­ing on a new book called The Mon­strous Child, which will be pub­lished next year.

And, of course, Hor­rid Henry also keeps her busy. She has just fin­ished a Hor­rid Henry tour, which in­cluded talks, read­ings and at­tend­ing his 20th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions in book­shops across the UK.

No doubt, there’s still a strong de­mand for the sto­ries set to lead a new gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren astray. But for par­ents in a spin at the mere thought of more Henry, re­mem­ber, there’s a sil­ver lin­ing to his high jinks and prankery: He has got them hooked on read­ing. And for that Francesca Si­mon has rea­son to smile.

Si­mon be­lieves read­ers love Hor­rid Henry as he speaks to the re­bel­lious child in every­one

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