Francesca Simon on 25 years of Horrid Henry

Francesca Simon on 25 years of Horrid Henry

Horrid Henry is turning 25. “It’s the 25th book, 25 years, 100th story,” says Francesca Simon of the latest title, Up, Up and Away, featuring her most famous character, “which is rather nice.”

“It was kind of by accident, really,” she says of the series’ beginnings. “I was asked by Judith Elliott, who’d just started a children’s list at Orion, for some Early Readers. I’d been thinking about parental favouritism, so I wrote a story called ‘Horrid Henry’.” Though it was ultimately rejected as “too difficult”, Elliott liked the story—Simon praises her “visionary” influence on Horrid Henry’s structure, saying, “That’s why every book has four stories, because she said if we do four stories, then we can make it for newly confident readers. I got the alliteration and the four-story format, really, because of my editor trying to make a story work.”

But the series didn’t take off straight away. “It was very quiet. There was no publicity,” Simon says. “It was independents, actually, bookshops like Ottakar’s, that made Horrid Henry.”

She is adamant that the series “never would have survived under today’s conditions... I really feel very strongly about this, that if I were writing this today, it would have been two books and you’re out. There’s this idea that somehow you make a splash instantly, and if you don’t, it’s a failure.” She credits the success of the multimillion-selling series to “booksellers and teachers”, adding: “There was a degree of handselling going on with the independents, who were allowed to choose their own stock. There was a real ethos that only people who were very seriously interested in the children’s book market were booksellers. It was the specialist shops, and the independents, who very slowly created Horrid Henry, and then teachers—I did a lot of school visits that were supported by bookshops.”

Children’s books in the 1990s were “certainly a ‘Cinderella’ area”, a perception Simon believes was altered because of the emergence of Harry Potter—“children’s books were ignored. And then [J K Rowling] came along and people stopped ignoring them”—and also the advent of the BookScan era. “I remember one of my publishers taking me out to lunch and saying, ‘Well, we’ve discovered you’re one of our top five authors at Orion.’ BookScan is both good and bad, because it made [publishers] aware of, I think, the extent to which they were being sustained by their children’s authors. They didn’t know in the way that they do now—but of course now, [with] too much knowledge, two books and you’re out.”

Tony Ross’ illustrations have helped the series exist in a timeless state over two and half decades. “Technology ages books,” Simon says, commenting on Ross’ “genius” in drawing “only iconic things... So his TVs are only big fat ones, the telephones are old, it’s almost like an emoji. The computers are always old, and he never changes that, because a year later it would look out of date. And by having something that’s becoming an iconic image, you avoid that.”

Step change

When she started writing for kids, Simon comments, people would ask when she was going to write an adult book. “Like baby steps. Like I’m in the kiddies’ pool. When do you think you might make that leap? To the big boy pool?” But over the 1990s, that changed. “Suddenly, all these adult authors were trying to write for children, because it also dawned on them, about the longevity of children’s books. So that’s been a huge change, in terms of the seriousness with which people regard children’s books. There are so many fantastic writers writing for this area. It’s certainly no longer seen as a training ground.” Although, she warns of the danger of “lots of people who aren’t writers putting their names to books—it’s always, with very few exceptions, children’s books. That, to me, plays into the old idea that anyone can do it. I think that does the industry a disservice.”

How has Horrid Henry remained so popular over 25 years? Simon discusses the tradition of naughty children in literature. “There’s an excitement and a creativity about misbehaving. But it’s also about allowing you to express repressed emotions in a safe way, which is one of the reasons I think that Horrid Henry is so popular. You are allowed, with Henry, to go ‘I hate my brother’, ‘I hate my parents’, and parents go, ‘No, you don’t! How dare you say that?’ This is a safe way of playing it for laughs, but actually allowing kids to explore those feelings, of hating to share, jealousy, rivalry, being ordered to do things.”

Sibling rivalry has remained a constant.

“Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter: I see them as Cain and Abel. These archetypal siblings, who are going to fight to the death over who gets control of the remote control, who gets to sit behind the driver, who gets the plate with the yellow ducks versus the pirate plate, all those things. Everyone has these things.”

Simon is a big advocate of children being encouraged to read for pleasure. “I always adore it when parents say, ‘Yours were the first books that my child ever read for pleasure.’ Or kids will say, ‘This was the first book I ever bought with my own money.’ That’s such a massive compliment, that I’ve hopefully set kids on their way, because it can be so hard to learn to read, and the whole point is that we should be wanting children to love to read.” She adds that “books that are funny, that kids of all ages read” are crucial to nurturing this love. “I’m very opposed to parents forcing their kids to always read that book that’s just a little bit too hard for them. ‘Oh no, it’s too easy for you!’ And you think, ‘What, so you’re always reading Kierkegaard yourself?’ Why can’t kids enjoy the stage that they’re at?”

Age is but a number

With regards to “age-group shaming”, she says: “I’ve always said no ages are allowed to be put on my books. Horrid Henry is very popular with kids who are autistic, kids who have Asperger’s, kids who are dyslexic, and I don’t ever want them to feel that they’re reading some baby book because they’re 11 years old. They can read what they want.”

Simon worries that reading for pleasure is being phased out as libraries suffer budget cuts and bookshops close down. “You need a dedicated, knowledgable person, so booksellers are so important. The sense that there’s always more out there for you to read and enjoy, but in order to find those, you do need teachers, you do need librarians, you do need booksellers, who know what they have.”

However, she has “no plans” for the 101st Horrid Henry. “I think there’s something very pleasing about 25 books, 100 stories—really nice, round numbers. I think Up, Up and Away is one of the best Horrid Henrys I’ve ever written. I always wanted to feel that each book is better than the one before.” But following the success of an opera adapted from her YA Book Prize-shortlisted The Monstrous Child, Simon is keen to write more. “It was an extraordinary experience,” she says. “It was one of those things where it was not only fantastically well received, but it was a really happy team. We all really enjoyed working together. We’re all keen: the conductor, the director, the composer and I are talking about what we can do next together.”

Francesca Simon’s 25th collection of Horrid Henry stories, Horrid Henry: Up, Up and Away (9781510105928), was published by Hachette Children’s Books in the UK on
21st March. The book was issued as a £5.99 paperback. In the title Henry wreaks havoc on an airplane, is forced to write an essay about the Tudors, sabotages the school play and sneaks on to a forbidden roller-coaster.