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Word Play: A horrid success with kids

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Francesca Simon is an international star. Her series of children's books about Horrid Henry (Sourcebooks: $4.99 each, ages 8-12) have sold 14 million copies in 24 countries. In England, where she lives, "Horrid Henry and the Football Fiend" was No. 12 on the list of 250 most-borrowed library books last year — and her books occupied 16 more spots on the list as well. There has been a "Horrid Henry" animated television series, even a stage show.

So imagine the author's dismay at visiting her hometown of Los Angeles and finding not a single one of her titles in her mother's neighborhood bookstore in Pacific Palisades. "It was weird to be such a major children's book author in England and never to see my books there," she said on the telephone from London recently. "I mean, it's Jacqueline Wilson, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer … I'm definitely in the top five!"

Finally, in April of last year, 15 years after Horrid Henry's first appearance in England, he arrived in the U.S. He has been a great hit with readers here, especially reluctant readers, who love Henry's anarchic shenanigans. Think Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants with a British accent.

Henry is not called "Horrid" for nothing. When Simon introduced him to the world, her first lines went like this:

Henry was horrid.

Everyone said so, even his mother.

Henry threw food, Henry grabbed, Henry pushed and shoved and pinched. Even his teddy bear, Mr. Kill, avoided him when possible.

In a telephone interview with Simon from her home in London, we cut right to the chase.

Sonja Bolle: Why did it take 15 years to sell Henry to a U.S. publisher?

Francesca Simon: It's a mysterious question to me. I think there was a certain amount of resistance and anxiety about Horrid Henry for years. Maybe because of the mood of the country when George Bush was president? A lot of American children's books have a soft glow, a sort of "I don't like my brother, but I wouldn't trade him for anything." Henry is not that. Horrid Henry tries to sell his brother, Perfect Peter.

But since the books have been published in the U.S., I have only seen 100% glowing reviews, so all those fears proved wrong. It may be hard to explain to people who haven't read the books, but children understand instantly what the joke is. Kids know that Henry is the part of you that screams, "It's not fair! He got more than me!" It's that anxiety and anger children are always being told to repress. Books are a good way to vent feelings that aren't acceptable. "I hate that present! I want to go home!" As a child, you're always being told not to say things like that. But Henry does!

As a parent, when you read books like this with kids, you're sending an important message: "I am big enough to take this. I know you have these feelings."

When I go on school visits, I always ask about the worst school trips they've ever had. There's always the kid who got lost or the kid who fell in the fountain. Those are the stories that go into these books. But it's played for laughter. There aren't enough funny books. Horrid Henry gives the illusion of terrible wickedness. He's the imp inside everyone.

SB: Your author note on each book says you spent your childhood on the beach in California.

FS: I was born in St. Louis, but the family came to California when I was a baby and settled in Brentwood. My father was a screenwriter [he wrote Judy Garland's last film, "I Could Go on Singing" (1963)]. I started school at Kenter Canyon Elementary, but then we went off and spent some years in England and France — we were a little peripatetic — before moving back to California. When I was 8 we settled in Malibu Colony [the beach town's most famous celebrity enclave].

The thing about the Colony in the early 1960s is that it was very much a beach-shack community, nothing like what it became. We had a small house, with one bathroom. With three children, it was quite a squish. Lana Turner lived across the street. I had no idea she was anyone famous. She was just a lady who seemed to have a lot of husbands. I remember her hanging wedding bells outside her gate. She was magnificent at Halloween; she would always dress up. She would sweep down stairs and lead you to these two enormous shallow glass dishes filled with candy and say the two sweetest words in the English language: "Help yourself!"

There were so many movie people in the Colony that to a child it seemed perfectly normal that no one worked at an office. One day I came home from school and told my parents in amazement that other parents actually worked away from home!

After three years in the Colony, we moved to Pacific Palisades, and I went to Palisades High School [class of 1973].

SB (upon discovering that Simon studied French with legendary Palisades High teacher Frederick Johnson, a touchstone for generations of graduates, who gave everyone extraordinary nicknames): What did Mr. Johnson call you?

FS: He called me Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, for the Italian opera conductor. One of my classmates was Tommy Newman [scion of the Hollywood musical dynasty who went on to become a well-known film composer]; Monsieur Johnson always called him Alfred, both for the Mad Magazine reference and for his father.

SB: When did you go to England?

FS: I went to Yale, then to Oxford and stayed in England by accident. I freelanced for newspapers. My great cachet as a writer was being an American living in London. You can hear from my voice, I've been here for 30 years. My husband and son are very English.

SB: How did you start writing children's books?

FS: It was not very planned. When my son was born, I started getting ideas. It made me uneasy. I was very aware that when people have a child they think they can write children's books. I was balancing a child and newspaper deadlines; it was not very forgiving. I would earn my quota in newspapers for the month, then I'd allow myself to work on books. When I sold my first book, they told me I was the only new writer they were publishing that year.

Believe me, as a writer, you don't choose what you write well. I love big, long, Victorian novels, but I couldn't write those. I had only 10 hours a week to work, I couldn't sustain long ideas. With journalism you're focused on one thing, then it's over. Children's books are the same. You discover what you're good at. All the talents I have lent themselves well to kids' books: a sense of the absurd, rhythm, rhyming.

The first Henry started as a one-off. I had written a few picture books when I met an editor who asked me to do a first reader, so I tried it. "Well," she said, "it's not suitable at all. It's too long. The words are too hard. But I like it. Let's see if we can make it work. I've got it! Can you write four more? We can put five stories in a book for middle readers."

Well, I freaked. I had never written on commission. So she cut it back to three more, which seemed more manageable, and it's been that way ever since: four stories per book, always with Horrid Henry in the title. I have a close friend who's just doing his first book in a series. I want to say to him, "Think carefully! This could be your life for the next 10 years!" You never think about that when you're writing them, you just want to get this one published.

I only write one new one a year, because I want them to stay fresh. The moment I stop enjoying them, I'll stop writing them. If this is what is going to be on my tombstone, I want them to be good.

THREE COOL THINGS ABOUT FRANCESCA SIMON AND HORRID HENRY:

1. The website http://www.francescasimon.com is worth visiting just for the feature (under "Horrid Henry Goes Global") that allows you to click on a country flag and see what Horrid Henry is called in different languages (Martin Zinzin in French; Rosszcsont Peti in Hungarian!).

2. In the British newspaper the Telegraph, Dinah Hall wrote of Simon that she "looks every inch the children's author, from her irrepressible smile to her mop of corkscrew curls, which look like they have been scribbled on her head by Tony Ross, the illustrator of her books." Ross' cartoony pictures will make you laugh almost as much as Henry's stories will; my personal favorite is two characters "looking daggers" at each other.

3. Starting in September, the Horrid Henry books will be available on audio download, read by actress Miranda Richardson. Both her nuanced performance and the clever scraps of music and effects are not to be missed.

Bolle's "Word Play" column appears at http://www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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