The ‘Horrid Henry’ series, written by Francesca Simon and illustrated by Tony Ross, is one of the UK’s bestselling series for 5-8 year olds. Over 5.5 million books have been sold to date and Henry, for all that he is unbelievably cheeky, totally naughty and utterly horrid, has been attributed with converting the most reluctant readers into enthusiastic ones. Janet Evans explains his appeal.
Books in series have an important role to play in helping children make the transition from picture books to simple chapter books. The ‘Horrid Henry’ books (along with the associated product ranges such as CDs, audio books, a TV series, wall charts and sticker books) fulfil the role perfectly. Children love them.
The appeal of the naughty side
So what is it about this series that children like? Well, first of all Henry is truly horrible. He does some mean, fairly unacceptable things such as letting off stink bombs, cheating badly at football and being exceedingly unpleasant on an ongoing basis to his younger, perfect, brother! In the latest title in the series, Horrid Henry’s Christmas Cracker, Horrid Henry sabotages the school play, tries to do his Christmas shopping without spending his pocket money, attempts to ambush Father Christmas and endures Christmas dinner with awful guests.
It seems that young readers, especially boys, readily identify with Henry’s ‘horridness’. His adventures and tricks focus on his endeavours to compete with and get the better of his many ‘enemies’ who include Moody Margaret, Sour Susan and, of course, his angelic little brother, Perfect Peter, whom Henry loves to hate. While all these characters, including Henry, are credible and realistic, they are also larger than life and unlikely to exist in reality.
Each of the stories follows a similar plot line: something horrible happens to one of the ‘enemy’ characters as a result of one of Henry’s dastardly plots, Henry gets his comeuppance and a sense of justice eventually prevails. Simon writes her humorous stories from a tongue in cheek, mildly acerbic point of view. In so doing, she presents situations which children would love to experience: how would it be to do some of the things that Henry does and be a part of his often madcap schemes? The stories thus offer the young reader the chance to explore, enjoy and identify imaginatively with extremes of ‘horridness’ that they would be unlikely to resort to (or would not be allowed to resort to!) in real life. This escapism from the humdrum realities of life with its rules and codes of behaviour clearly has tremendous appeal for this age group.
There are now over 16 titles in the ‘Horrid Henry’ series as well as some anthologies. Despite not being very long (usually about 96pp) each book is divided into four short chapters. The books’ titles are descriptive and tantalizingly provocative, drawing the young reader into the storylines with the promise of an enticing read which will entertain whilst at the same time be slightly ‘off bounds’ in relation to what is and isn’t acceptable in real, everyday life. Titles such as Horrid Henry’s Stink Bomb, Horrid Henry’s Underpants and Horrid Henry and the Football Fiend give intimations of plots which offer the chance of becoming involved in doing naughty things without the fear of getting into trouble. It must also be mentioned that the books are beautifully presented – plenty of illustrations and the font size is perfect for the young reader launching into series books by themselves. Indeed they are a joy to read and to own. Young readers will certainly long to collect the whole series and many already do.
Boys often say that they like reading material that is linked to fantasy or action. They also enjoy reading humorous or weird stories. These days these interests are adequately met from a young age by appropriate picture story books. Take for example those written by Simon Bartram – Man on the Moon (a day in the life of Bob), An Exciting Week in Dougal’s Deep-Sea Diary and Up for the Cup (recently discussed in BfK No 158). Bartram’s books, brilliantly written and fabulously illustrated, are eminently suitable for all readers, however they particularly suit boys with their unusual subject matter and intrepid yet humorous storylines. Other picture story books which are very keenly read by boys are the ‘Dr Xargle’ series by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, along with many of Anthony Browne’s books which often feature boys as the main character, the Willy series being a case in point. Jon Scieszka, who wrote The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf, amongst others, is so keen to nurture boys as readers that he has created a website dedicated to boys and books (www.guysread.com). Finding such books with boy appeal that also bridge the gap between picture books and full text stories can be challenging. However, ‘Horrid Henry’ seems to hit the spot with its humour and action packed plots.
One teacher who uses the ‘Horrid Henry’ series reports:
‘The children are really keen on them. They are especially liked in Y2 and Y3 (6-8 year olds) as they follow on from picture story books. However there are still popular with quite a few 8 and 9 year olds in Y4. I think the children enjoy reading them as they are a good mixture of print and pictures. The children still like pictures at this age and they particularly like Tony Ross’ illustrations. Many of the children like the familiarity of the characters… the continuity from book to book. They know before they start that the books are going to be humorous but they will also be about something they can relate to… mainly getting into trouble without being involved themselves.’
While it is mainly boys who read the Horrid Henry books, girls also enjoy reading them – although it is the boys who identify with them most. At this age lots of girls are already relating to Jacqueline Wilson’s books, and in particular her popular character, Tracy Beaker.
Boys do read but they are selective in what they read. If we are to entice them into reading, the material has to engage and be fun. It also has to appeal to their interests, linking what they are reading to what they like. The ‘Horrid Henry’ series fits the bill perfectly. It has made its mark in the world of series books for young boy readers and I suspect it will stay there for quite a long while.
The ‘Horrid Henry’ series by Francesca Simon is published by Orion.
What young readers told Janet Evans about Horrid Henry:
‘I’d like to be Horrid Henry because he does naughty things. But he’s not that bad is he?’ Matthew (6 years)
‘Horrid Henry’s naughty but I wouldn’t want to be Perfect Peter. He is just too good – he’s sicky!’ Tim (7 years)
‘I remember reading the ‘Horrid Henry’ books when I was in Year 3. I read all of them and they were really great but I prefer Jacqueline Wilson’s books now, she’s cool.’ Emily (11 years)
Janet Evans is Senior Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope University and a Literacy and Education Consultant.
Contact Janet at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit her website www.janetevans.co.uk