Francesca Simon: 'I wanted Horrid Henry to be like Cain and Abel'

The creation of a menacing character with no redeeming features – children love him, parents not so much – has brought her success everywhere except in her native US. Paul Bignell meets Francesca Simon
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The Independent Online

She knows her Old Testament, she knows her Sophocles. Author Francesca Simon is talking about her hugely popular creation, Horrid Henry, and citing Cain and Abel, Oedipus Rex and US sitcom Seinfeld as influences on her books. The last especially.

"I'm very much influenced by Seinfeld: the no hugs and no morals. I never wanted to have the theme in my books of: 'I have a brother and he's really a bit of a nuisance,' then at the end 'yeah, but I wouldn't be without him'. I always wanted Horrid Henry to be like Cain and Abel – the absolute fight to the death. In a way, there's a catharsis there."

Yes, this is Horrid Henry we're talking about, the fictional children's character beloved by primary school children the world over. Henry is constantly irked by his brother, Perfect Peter, and his ability to do no wrong in the eyes of his exasperated parents. Since the mid-1990s, the series has made Simon a fortune and propelled her into that select band of children's authors – Wilson, Horowitz and Donaldson, but not quite Rowling.

You wouldn't call Horrid Henry a hero, or even an anti-hero: more a menace with no redeeming features. But that's his draw.

"You allow children, through these books, to express themselves and express things that in real life they are always told not to," says Simon. "In the same way as we might go to see Oedipus Rex to see what it's like to marry your mother and murder your father, but it doesn't mean that you're going to run home and do that."

At 56, Simon wears cool trainers and often tugs at her amazing dark-brown, corkscrew hair in a child-like manner when pondering a question. There's no affectation, no hint that she's sold over 16 million books which are published in more than 50 countries. Put simply, she's a literary mega-star. The Chinese love Horrid Henry, as do the Polish and the South Africans and the Koreans – but not those in her native US.

There's a Horrid Henry film out too, although the critics were unimpressed. But Simon had no control over it, nor will she watch it. "I have nothing to do with it. I've deliberately not seen it. The rights were sold many, many years ago unfortunately." Does she regret that? "Of course I mind, but there's nothing I can do," she says in a matter of fact way.

"The only thing you can do is never sell the rights. If you sell them, then it's sort of ... tough luck." It's the same with the popular CITV cartoon series and the rest of the merchandising. Yet, despite the obvious regret at selling the rights, she is immensely proud of her creation and the profound impact he's had on children's lives and those of parents too.

"A lot of parents write to me and say: 'We just had to write to you because we never thought our child would read. But we just left him reading under the covers with a flash light.'' I call them the tear-stained letters."

This week will see the release of the 20th Horrid Henry book, a milestone that she'll celebrate with a slap-up meal for family and friends. But that's where the trappings of fame end. This is the world of children's books. There are no prima donnas here of the type found in the adult book world. Simon is more likely to be seen campaigning outside her local North London library or visiting teachers and parents than hobnobbing with the literati.

She doesn't have competitors, merely fellow authors: "One child in Edinburgh asked me who my main competitors were. If Julia Donaldson didn't exist and her books didn't exist, then I wouldn't have the readers. If I didn't exist then Anthony Horowitz and Jo Rowling wouldn't have their readers. Children need lots of different books. Adult writers are a lot more competitive, but with children you need this vast input."

As the eldest child of four, Simon had something of a bohemian, peripatetic upbringing. Born in St Louis, but soon moving to California, her playwright father would move the family to New York, Paris and London. Her mother was a housewife heavily involved in the civil rights movement. Her father worked from home, all their friends who were writers or worked in the film industry, worked from home. Simon says it wasn't until around aged nine that Simon discovered other people's parents actually went out to work. She later went on to study medieval studies at Yale and Anglo-Saxon at Oxford – which fostered her love of alliteration. She initially worked as a journalist after settling in the UK. She began writing children's books when she had her first and only child, Josh, who's now in his early twenties, and realised that the long deadlines of book writing suited her better than the tight ones of journalism.

She only ever expected to write one book, but the timing was right: moving from what she calls the "Cinderella era" of children's books – where she would often be asked when she would begin writing "proper books" – to a golden era for children's literature which began a decade ago, pretty much with Harry Potter.

"It is such an amazingly golden time because there are so many good people writing. Now lots of adult writers are trying to write for children.

"People used to ask me, 'Don't you mind that Jo Rowling is taking all the attention?' And I'd say, 'What attention?' No one had the slightest interest in children's authors. There was no attention. She's created this whole renewed interest in children's books. Children's authors should be very indebted to her."

Bizarrely, it's only her native US that hasn't taken to Horrid Henry. She puts it down to the country's conservatism and the fact that the Scholastic book clubs won't distribute the series to school libraries. "I find it very mysterious as my books are published in a whole number of repressive regimes – China, Korea and Russia, for example – but not the US. There's a lot of self-censorship that goes on in America in a way that it doesn't go on here."

But for now, she's more than content with her success: "When I think back and ask myself can I write more than one story and here I've done 80 – 80 stories." she repeats the number as if she hardly believes it herself. "It just happened."

From bohemian childhood to worldwide success

1955 Born Francesca Simon on 23 February in St Louis, Missouri, the eldest of two sons and two daughters.

1967 By age 12 has lived in London and Paris, but spent most of her childhood in California.

1977 After taking a degree in medieval studies at Yale University, moves to England to undertake a second degree in Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. Starts out as an English teacher before becoming a freelance journalist.

1983 Meets her future husband, Martin Stamp, a software developer.

1989 After the birth of her son Joshua, begins to write children's stories. Her first book is published in 1993.

1994 The first Horrid Henry book is published. The series takes off after the fourth book, Horrid Henry's Nits, is published. The series is now printed in 24 countries.

2008 A stage adaptation Horrid Henry – Live and Horrid! opens in London's West End. Horrid Henry and the Abominable Snowman wins the Children's Book of the Year at the British Book Awards.

2011 Horrid Henry: The Movie is released in UK cinemas at the end of July.