Author Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry book series would be a worldwide success — that is, if someone in America would publish it. By Gregory Katz
Shakespeare’s works, the Beatles’ albums, James Bond, Harry Potter — all these British creations have crossed the Atlantic and found huge followings in the United States. But so far, the same cannot be said for Horrid Henry, a fictional character created by Francesca Simon, a friendly, frizzy-haired American author who lives in London. Her books have become smash hits in Britain and many other parts of the world, yet they’ve failed to get a foothold in America, the largest book market of all.
Why? It could just be that Horrid Henry — devious, rambunctious, and constantly plotting against his parents, teachers, and little brother — is deemed by publishers to be too politically incorrect for the U.S. audience.
“What was fed back to me was they thought the books were unsuitable for America,” says Simon of her experience with the American publishers who initially wanted the rights to the Horrid Henry stories but then backed down. “I don’t know if they were thought to be immoral, but [certainly] too evil and too wild for America. What I think is funny is that my books are published in all kinds of conservative countries; they’re a huge hit in Poland, in China, in Korea. To me, it’s ironic that they are not published in America. To me, it means they haven’t read the books carefully.”
It is true that the growing Horrid Henry series goes against the grain. For starters, the stories are not parables with a simple moral point that can be summed up in a feel-good way. There are no particularly happy endings in which everything works out and everybody gets a big hug. These are not idealized valentines to family life; instead, they are more like cinema verité. The title character doesn’t like school or swimming lessons or camping or doing things with his family — Henry’s idea of paradise is a free afternoon spent in front of a TV set, with an endless supply of potato chips nearby. His interests are Henry, Henry, and Henry. And he thinks nothing of trying to sabotage anything Perfect Peter, his annoying little brother, tries to do.
“I think every child identifies with the books and the horrendously stupid parents who get everything wrong,” says Amanda Craig, who reviews children’s books for the Times newspaper in London. “Even parents laugh at it themselves. They’re laughing at their own faults. A lot of the stories are drawn from real life. Francesca asks everybody she knows for his or her stories. She writes about the essential lunacy of family life. And sometimes Henry wins, and sometimes Henry loses. He’s a great trickster hero. I see him as a descendant from the heroes in fairy tales and literature. We always love those kinds of characters. There’s a lot more to the stories than people think. I think Francesca really deserves her success.”
Simon typically dreams up stories based on real-life family situations gone awry. She is not looking for tragedy but for farce. The one consistent theme is the ongoing battle between Perfect Peter — always anxious to please his parents and his teachers — and Horrid Henry, an instinctive rebel. It is no surprise that most kids identify with Henry.
“The way I often come up with the stories is I think of really ordinary things like birthday parties, and then I ask people, ‘Tell me about the worst birthday party you ever went to,’?” says Simon, who lives and writes in a comfortable house with a lovely garden in north London. “All my relatives are teachers, so I’ll ask them, ‘Tell me about [your worst] school trips.’ I’m friendly with the local schoolteachers, so I’ll go into the teacher’s room and say, ‘Okay, tell me about the disastrous sports days.’ And everyone is just laughing, telling me about the time a teacher forgot to hard-boil the eggs, about the kid who got left behind on a school trip, the kid who wet his pants. I just throw all these things in. There is no family in the world that hasn’t had the horrible car journey, the trip that goes wrong — these are just things that happen in families. But I try to write about it in a funny way for kids, with the things that amuse me.”
To Simon, who studied medieval literature at Yale before moving to England in her 20s, it seems, at times, that she is doing little more than serving her fictional creation. Most of her time is spent writing about him, promoting him, meeting with parents and teachers to talk about him, and fielding fans’ letters. The Horrid Henry juggernaut leaves little time for herself and her real family, which includes her husband and a well-behaved, not horrid, son.
“Sometimes, it feels like I am the personal assistant to a very demanding person called Horrid Henry,” she says. “A lot of my time is spent answering letters. I get hundreds and hundreds of letters, and I answer them all. It’s a lot of effort, but I think it’s important. Because I love to read so much, it makes me incredibly happy that all these kids are saying how much they love the books. Also, so many parents are saying to me, ‘Your books are the first books that my child ever read for fun.’ Parents write to me a fair bit and say, ‘Thank you so much. My son now loves to read because he found your books, and before that, he never realized how much fun books could be.’?”