Interview: Francesca Simon

Francesca Simon explains why she thinks her children’s stories about a very naughty boy have become global best-sellers

By Simon Round, December 11, 2008

Horrid Henry is a very naughty boy. He is nasty to his brother, he plays pranks on his teachers and he makes his parents absolutely miserable. Yet one cannot help feeling that his creator, children’s author Francesca Simon, is rather fond of him — and admires many of his qualities.

It is not just the fact that Horrid Henry has become a publishing phenomenon, selling 12 million copies in 27 countries, and has spawned a hit ITV series and now a West End play, Horrid Henry – Live and Horrid. It’s that Henry has what Simon calls a “life force”.

Over coffee in the kitchen of her North London house, Simon lists Henry’s good (well, slightly less bad) qualities: “He is very imaginative and his fantasy life is wonderful. I like it that he is optimistic, that he always bounces back. I also like the fact that he is so brave and cavalier. Of course, I wouldn’t like him as my child, but then he is very extreme — not a real child at all. No real children are like that.”

Simon somehow looks and behaves how one would expect a children’s writer to. Her mop of unruly hair, her sunny disposition and her expansive Californian manner all indicate that she is a natural with kids. However, as a young woman, she never had any ambitions to write for children. She is an intellectual. She studied medieval literature at Yale and Oxford and went on to write weighty pieces for the Sunday Times and The Guardian.

However, after the birth of her son, Josh, 19 years ago, Simon was suddenly inspired. “I have always been a keen reader, so when Josh was born I started reading to him,” she says. “Ideas for stories kept flooding in to me. For example, when my father was looking after Josh one day, Josh came back really dirty. I said: ‘Dad, didn’t you find the bibs?’ And he said: ‘Oh no, I forgot.’ So I did a story called Papa Forgot about a grandfather who is looking after a child and has forgotten all the instructions from the parents. Of course, they have an absolutely fantastic time anyway.”

Inspired by the situations she encountered with Josh, Simon started to write more and within a year her first book, What Does the Hippopotamus Say?, was published. Horrid Henry came later when her editor at Orion asked if she would like to attempt a first reader for young children. The story Simon wrote, about a horrible boy called Henry, was completely inappropriate. “My editor, Judith, told me it didn’t work at all. But she quite liked it anyway and asked if I could write three more.”

Simon was stressed by the request and very nearly declined. “I wanted to say: ‘No, this is a one-off story’, but I wasn’t in a position to refuse, even though I wanted to. Anyway, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if I could take the characters further.” At no point was there a conscious decision to make Horrid Henry into a series. “Judith would just ring me up and ask if perhaps I would like to write another one.”

It was not until the fourth book, Horrid Henry’s Nits, that sales began to take off. Since then, Simon has had plenty of feedback — most of it overwhelmingly positive. However, occasionally there has been criticism from parents who did not want a horrid child to be a bad role model for their little cherubs.

“Clearly anyone who thinks like that hasn’t read the books,” claims Simon. “Henry does nothing that every child in the world hasn’t at least thought of. He calls his brother names, he gets sent to his room, he fantasises about just sitting on the sofa eating sweets. It’s a strange thought that if a child starts reading Horrid Henry, he will stop doing his homework.”

Simon adds that she is very careful in the way she writes the books because Henry has to be sympathetic — up to a point at least. “I realised very early on that Henry couldn’t plot — that is sociopathic and unpleasant and not funny at all. Henry won’t walk into a room and say: ‘I’m going to knock over those flowers because I feel like it.’ Henry is trying to reach that chocolate bar that his parents have put out of reach. And in attempting to reach the chocolate bar, he knocks over the flowers.”

Simon is a passionate advocate of literature — of her fellow children’s writers she especially rates the work of Roald Dahl, Lauren Childs and Michael Rosen. One of the things that gives her most pride is the fact that children read Horrid Henry without any parental cajoling. “One teacher told me that after she got Horrid Henry there were no more reluctant readers at her school. If children enjoy what they read, suddenly reading isn’t hard work any more.”

More than just giving pleasure, Simon also thinks that reading Horrid Henry might actually be a form of therapy for both parents and children. “Henry is just giving voice to feelings inside every child. It’s much better to have it in the open and play it for laughs than to bottle it up. I often say to kids, Henry is naughty so you don’t need to be. But he is not a bully. The people he fights with are worthy adversaries. Children have a huge amount of anger and resentment. When siblings fight, it’s often almost to the death. Parents don’t like this and try to damp it down, so it’s liberating for kids to read about it within the safety and confines of the book. They can laugh at the family from hell.”

Although Simon is at pains to point out that her son, now reading theology at Cambridge, was certainly not the template for Henry, there were episodes during his life that prompted storylines — thank you letters being one of them.

“One of my favourite stories is based on Josh’s barmitzvah. We spent the whole summer trying to get him to write his thank you notes and it was a long hard slog.

“Then one day, my husband asked if I had ever thought of Henry running his own business. Then it came to me, he would have a letter-writing business or, in his case, a no-thank-you letter-writing business.”

Simon has no plans to stop writing Horrid Henry; she is contracted for another five books. The tough part for her is thinking up the stories — there are four in each book. Once she has done so, the writing part is fairly straightforward. She reckons it takes her four months to write each book and she writes one a year.

Which means she has plenty of spare time, right ? Wrong. For a start she has taken a close interest in Horrid Henry – Live and Horrid, which is currently running at the Trafalgar Studios.

Written by award-winning playwright John Godber and performed by an enthusiastic young cast, Simon describes watching it as “one of the most amazing experience of my life. John is amazing. He turns in all the theatrical tricks, the rewinds, the fast forwards. He even has two Horrid Henrys so that Henry can talk to himself.”

She is also taking a close interest in the fact that Horrid Henry is finally being published in the United States.

“Between the US launch and being ecstatic about the show there’s not really a lot of time left.

“Being in ecstasy is very time-consuming.”

Horrid Henry — Live and Horrid, is at the Trafalgar Studios, London SWI until January 11. Tickets on 0870 060 6632

Last updated: 10:46am, December 19 2008