‘That’s so exciting!’ Francesca is saying into her phone as she opens the door to me. I gesture for her to continue; the news on the phone is clearly important. I follow her into the stunning open plan living space of her kitchen/dining room and wander out into the garden to be charmed by the amazing calm of the pond and fountain.
When Francesca’s call is finished she shares its delightful news: Steven Butler, the young actor and acrobat who so successfully translated Horrid Henry onto the stage, has picked up the part of Ariel in a forthcoming Trevor Nunn production of The Tempest. Francesca’s bubbling excitement for Stephen is contagious. The two have worked closely together since first meeting including sharing platforms at literary festivals as Steven, supported and encouraged by Francesca and influenced by his former head teacher Jeremy Strong, has himself become the author himself (The Wrong Pong and its sequels).
And it is fitting that the human embodiment of one of contemporary children’s fiction’s most-loved characters – if that’s the right word to use of Horrid Henry – should be so important to its creator. Horrid Henry’s success is monumental however you list it. There are the huge sales figures – over 16.5 million copies in the UK and rising with Horrid Henry and the Zombie Vampire, the twentieth title just released; the play; the film; the audio book versions recorded by Miranda Richardson, Francesca’s enormous and hugely crowd-pleasing events at literary festivals and Francesca’s own fame across the media. Building up gradually over the years it has made Francesca Simon a children’s book star and she is properly grateful to all those who helped that to happen.
But, like many other publishing successes, it didn’t happen overnight. An American of Russian and Polish descent who came to Oxford from Yale to study English and fell in love with England in general despite plans to return to the US and become an academic, Francesca has watched her success build around her and she has worked hard to make sure that happened. ‘I remember the early stages very well,’ Francesca says. ‘For me it was very slow. I’ve always admired how J.K Rowling dealt with immediate success.’
When her son Josh was born in 1989, Francesca was a freelance journalist with an especially strong suit in interviews. She had no thoughts of writing for children. ‘Then I had Josh and I re-read a lot of books from my own childhood and I started getting ideas. I’m smart, I’m funny, I’m very logical and I can see things in quirky ways. I think all of these helped.’
‘I’d had a few picture books published including But What Does the Hippopotamus Say? but had also got a lot of very nice but mostly rejection letters. In fact, when Judith Elliot asked me into Orion, she’d turned down another idea but said she’d like to meet me.’ It was Judith, the inspirational Editorial Director and founder of the Orion children’s book list, who suggested that Francesca wrote an early reader. ‘I made an attempt at it but I didn’t know about them and I didn’t even go and look. I just wrote about two brothers, one bad and one perfect.’
Francesca missed the mark of the early reader but Judith spotted the vital spark in the idea of the two opposing brothers and the Francesca’s un- prissy narrative voice. She saw it pitched at confident readers and suggested that Francesca should add another four stories. And it was Judith, too, who chose illustrator Tony Ross to give the books their captivatingly demonic look. Willing to try it, Francesca got ideas for different scenes such as a tap-dancing class from Josh’s life and fixed the now-famous voice in which she wanted to tell the stories of these two contrasting brothers. Looking back on it today Francesca says, ‘It wasn’t a big deal. It was just one book of many and you just think, Please God, can I be published? And then, Please God, can I see my book in a bookshop?’ It was an accidental success. I really like that. It was all very haphazard and organic. People weren’t thinking in terms of big series in those days.’
That organic way of thinking has played into Francesca’s hands. ‘Orion gave me lots of time. Except for Ottakars, nobody paid the books much attention. It wasn’t until Horrid Henry’s Nits that Waterstone’s took any notice.’ Like many other authors at that time, Francesca did most of the work of building her own market.‘ There was no advertising but I did lots of school visits and teachers and children found the books.’
Being allowed the time to write at her own pace was especially important to Francesca who is a perfectionist. ‘I just wouldn’t have coped under the pressure of today’s deadline-driven approach. It would have made me very anxious,’ she says. ‘I have to finish before a deadline.’ Fortunately, she has always had time to do that and she has used it wisely. ‘Because I’m always ahead, I’ve had the chance to read the books aloud at festivals and gauge the response. I used to rush endings so that I gave away the final point too soon. I’m lucky that I’ve had the time to write the books in the way that I want.’
Her thinking behind the ‘Horrid Henry’ books was very clear: Francesca believes there is no bottom to the depths that sibling rivalry can go to and her intention was to show that. I’ve heard her describe how children in the back of a car will squabble not, as you might expect, over who has the window seat, but over the very air they breathe. ‘Henry and Peter are engaged in something so primal. The core is Cain and Abel,’ she says. ‘It is a fight to the death over who has the TV remote control.’ And in the ‘Horrid Henry’ stories there are no holds barred. ‘I wanted it to be driven by a bolt of pure rage – the rage of a two year old, the kind of rage that adults feel in road rage.’ It’s an emotional force she’s retained from her own childhood. ‘I’ve got a really strong memory for my childhood so I can understand Henry and Peter. I’m fifteen months older than my sister and I remember how it feels.’
Having done so many events around the books for audiences of children Francesca knows a lot about how they respond to the stories when she reads them to live audiences and the sacks of letters she gets confirm this. ‘Children love Henry and identify with him because he gives a sense of being powerful while in their own lives they are mostly so powerless. Henry does all the things that they would love to do.’ Francesca’s view is that there is an ‘imp’ in all children and they love the chance to let it play. But she looks behind Henry’s behaviour to the causes and here again she thinks her readers are very perceptive. ‘Children also get the point that it is parents who have created the Horrid Henry situation,’ she says. ‘They have set their two sons up. They always praise Peter so he is the super ego and Henry is the id. Henry carries the rage of the family.’ In general, she thinks adults are less understanding of how the dynamic has been created. ‘Parents don’t necessarily notice realise their identification with a particular child. Most parents think they are entirely fair but that is rarely the case.’ Whatever the precise response of parent or child, Francesca knows that her books are hitting a very important spot for families in general. ‘I love talking to audiences of parents and children. Behind their response there’s the sense that we’ve been there. And we can laugh.’
Despite the apparently wide gap between stories for emerging readers and an English degree at Oxford, Francesca thinks that the two are really very closely related. ‘No one knows what’s going to be useful in life so I’ve always thought you should study what you like,’ she says. ‘I studied medieval art at Yale and then English at Oxford where I studied Anglo Saxon and Middle English writing and from both I learnt about archetypes in story. From the medieval English, I picked up on alliterations which have turned out to be very useful.’
Francesca’s transatlantic background has also provided her with an ability to write stories which have a very valuable ubiquitous quality which spreads their appeal: although very English in feel, Horrid Henry and his family and friends manage to avoid being easily identifiable by class, precise location or even, very specifically, time. ‘I write Horrid Henry to sound British deliberately. As I have a British son and husband that’s not too hard,’ Francesca says. ‘I’ve lost my American ear.’ But, at the same time she says, ‘I’m definitely an American and I think that’s very helpful to me. I’m oblivious to class distinctions. I can tell if people are educated but I can’t draw conclusions from how people talk.’ Francesca relishes this double view point. ‘I enjoy looking and sounding like an outsider but knowing a lot about the inside.’
Francesca’s insider view of family life has captivated readers for over a decade and Francesca has kept pace with her readers by writing a new book of stories every year while her publishers have fed the appetite for Horrid Henry with a range of additional publishing.
Now she is launching into something new. Approached by Andrew Franklin, Publisher of Profile Books and an old friend from Oxford, Francesca was offered the chance to write anything she wanted. It was a daunting proposition but also a golden opportunity and Francesca seized it. ‘I felt I really wanted to challenge myself,’ she says. ‘I wanted to do something different and hard. It’s been a real thrill but very scary.’
Based on the Lewis Chessmen and drawing extensively on Norse mythology, her latest book, The Sleeping Army, weaves the Viking gods into a thrilling contemporary adventure story. For Francesca much of the challenge was writing description, something she almost entirely avoids in Horrid Henry. ‘I’m really good at dialogue, aggression and humour but I’ve never thought I’m so good at describing things,’ she says. ‘I’ll be a better writer as a result.’
Despite the thrill of the new challenge and the excitement of taking a risk which is something Francesca believes to be very important, she has no plans to abandon Horrid Henry. ‘I’m really interested in developing The Sleeping Army, possibly into an opera, but I also have lots more ideas for Horrid Henry. I feel very close to him and Perfect Peter.’
A selection of ‘Horrid Henry’ titles all published by Orion in pbk at £4.99:
Horrid Henry and the Zombie Vampire (978 1 8425 5135 6)
Horrid Henry’s Nits (978 1 8588 1353 0)
Horrid Henry Robs the Bank (978 1 8425 5132 5)
Horrid Henry Rocks (978 1 8425 5134 9)
Horrid Henry Wakes the Dead (978 1 8425 5133 2)
Horrid Henry and the Abominable Snowman (978 1 8425 5070 0)
The Sleeping Army (978 1 8466 8278 0) is published in Oct. by Profile Books in hbk at £9.99.
Julia Eccleshare is a critic, author and broadcaster on children’s books.