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'I think that kids really respond to anarchic characters'

Horrid Henry has captured hearts and imaginations the world over. As children's favourite anti-hero celebrates his 20th anniversary, his creator Francesca Simon tells Hannah Stephenson about her naughty boy's enduring success

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 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 that 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?' I think that 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 agrees.

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 back to LA. The family always rented places 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 always 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 for some reason 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 frequently to see her parents and siblings but has now lived in England longer than America. In 1986, she married Martin Stamp, a software programmer, and the idea for Horrid Henry came about when 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. As a writer, you don't necessarily choose what genre you're best at writing. I can see the absurdity of things in the world."

Horrid Henry first appeared in 1994, in an era that soon saw 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 that they were all being supported by their children's books. So children's writers started to be given much greater respect. And now, you have adult writers trying to write children's books."

She began by writing one book a year (and still does). School 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. Partly because they were so funny and also because each tale took about 12 minutes, yet there was a huge amount to discuss within the context.

"I got a note once from a teacher who said she worked in a really poor school in Northern Ireland, and not one 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."

Of course, the pictures in the books complete the image of Horrid Henry and accompanying friends and relatives, all drawn by the famous illustrator Tony Ross.

"Tony likes being told what to illustrate. I come up with lots of things. I love Miss Battle-Axe who has fantasies about being a tap dancer and dancing on Broadway. Or Henry thinks about how he's going to punish her by making her tightrope-walk between two buildings. 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, she says.

"I don't see him as older. 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 that 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.

"He seems to be much more horrible than he is and is played for laughs. It's very rare that plots. 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. When you read a book like this, you get all the thrill of being naughty and none of the consequences."

Her 23rd storybook, 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 (£4.99). The Horrid Henry 20th Anniversary Edition is also available now (£4.99)

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