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