Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon talks to Hannah Stephenson about the naughty schoolboy who was inspired by her own family life
Perfect Peter would be applauding, Moody Margaret would be moaning and Weepy William would probably be crying buckets at the knowledge that their nemesis, Horrid Henry, is celebrating his 20th anniversary this month.
For two decades the children’s favourite, created by Jewish author Francesca Simon, has been making mischief, wreaking havoc and causing mayhem – often at the expense of his poor parents and goody-two-shoes younger brother, Perfect Peter.
I tell Simon my own children grew up with the Horrid Henry books and even now, as young teenagers, sometimes return to them.
“I have people in their early 20s who still queue [for the books]. The readers are anything from four to 20-plus. The books are funny for kids and parents. It’s fun to allow that impish side out,” she says.
“I think of ordinary situations and try to give them a ‘Horrid’ twist,” she continues. “I will think: ‘What would Henry do?’ Children really respond to anarchic characters.”
The books have sold more than 20 million copies in the UK alone, are published in 34 languages across 36 countries and Simon is the third most borrowed author from UK libraries. The character has some connection with her own peripatetic childhood in cramped environments, she says.
Daughter of screenwriter, director and playwright Mayo Simon, the author was born in St Louis, but moved about a lot. Before she was eight, she had lived in Missouri, New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and a second time in LA.
The family always rented homes and often had to move at short notice. “I’m the eldest of four children, and I longed to be an only child, so I’m very attuned to sibling rivalry.
“I was incredibly well-behaved at school, like Perfect Peter, and then I became Horrid Henry at home. I screamed and shouted, slammed doors, projected things, wouldn’t play with my siblings and just wanted to be alone and do what I wanted. That went on until last week,” she quips.
“Throughout my childhood, we had to live in rather cramped houses. I had to share a room with my sister, who I didn’t get on with. I liked staying up late, she liked going to bed at eight. She was very messy, I wasn’t.
“The feeling of being pushed together made me think about Horrid Henry as a classic comedy set-up. Parents don’t choose their children and children don’t choose their parents, but you’re all living together.”
After attending Yale, where she studied medieval history and old English literature, Simon continued her education at Oxford University and then taught English as a foreign language in London, before falling into a career as a freelance journalist. She returns to the US often to see her parents and siblings, but has lived in England for longer.
In 1986, she married Martin Stamp, a software programmer, and the idea for Horrid Henry came after their son Joshua was born. “I never had any ambitions to write for children until my son was born and then I started getting loads of ideas.
Horrid Henry first appeared in 1994, in an era that soon experienced a boom in children’s books, largely thanks to the efforts of JK Rowling.
“Children’s books used to be excluded from all the bestseller lists. With Jo Rowling, the Harry Potter books were the bestselling books, so the recognition accorded to children’s books really changed,” Simon observes.
“Publishers suddenly realised they were all being supported by their children’s books. So children’s writers started to be given greater respect.”
She began by writing one book a year (and still does). Teachers discovered the books appealed equally to boys and girls – and particularly to children who wouldn’t usually read – and started reading the stories aloud in class.
“I got a note once from a teacher who said she worked in a really poor school in Northern Ireland, and that not a single pupil in her class had a book at home. She made Horrid Henry books a reward for good behaviour, where children were allowed to take them home at the weekend if they had behaved well.”
The pictures in the books complete the image of Horrid Henry and accompanying friends and relatives, all drawn by the famous children’s illustrator, Tony Ross. “Tony likes being told what to illustrate. I do write them with the idea of making funny pictures for him to draw.”
Henry may have turned 20, but he’s never aged in the books and he’s not going to, Simon says. “I never say how old he is but I think of him as being about eight and Peter as being about six, but I deliberately don’t say because the kids who read the books are as young as four or as old as 11.” When the first book was published there was concern about how much Henry could actually get away with.
“We were aware we were dancing on the line. He gives the illusion of dreadfulness and great wickedness, but he actually doesn’t do anything that every single child in the world and their parents have not done,” Simon explains.
“He seems to be much more horrible than he is and he is played for laughs. It’s very rare that Henry plots. He merely responds to situations. He thinks he wants something and he will do anything to get it, but he never sets out to cause trouble.
He embodies total selfishness but there’s no story when Horrid Henry walks into the room and thinks how he could wreck it. That would not be funny.”
To some parents in our politically-correct world, he may be seen as a dubious hero, not setting a great example to young readers.
“He’s not an example,” Simon insists. “He’s in the same tradition as Just William or Alice In Wonderland or Peter Rabbit. Children’s literature is filled with these anarchic, trickster characters.
“He allows children to express the things they’re not allowed to express in their life and they are able to do it within the safety of a book. “When you read a book like this, you get all the thrill of being naughty and none of the consequences.”
Her twenty-third book, Horrid Henry’s Krazy Ketchup, has been published to coincide with his birthday, along with a Horrid Henry 20th Anniversary Edition of the first ever book.
But it’s not the end. “I’m doing at least one more Horrid Henry book and possibly more for the future. It would be nice to have 25 books and 100 stories.”
• Horrid Henry’s Krazy Ketchup by Francesca Simon is published by Orion Children’s Books, and Horrid Henry 20th Anniversary Edition, are both priced £4.99 and available now