Children's book club Q&A with Francesca Simon


Francesca Simon

To coincide with our May 2012 Children's Book of the Month, The Sleeping Army, we invited Children's Book Award-winning author Francesca Simon to answer a selection of your questions. You asked the creator of Horrid Henry where she gets her inspiration, about her plans for future books and what she thinks of her characters appearing on screen.

Francesca started writing full-time in 1989, following the birth of her son Joshua. Since then she has written over 50 books, with her Horrid Henry series selling over 15 million copies in 24 countries. 

Francesca Simon: Hi, I'm very pleased to be here in Mumsnet Towers. The drawbridge is down and I look forward to chatting...

Q. Peldred: Do you get lots of inspiration for your books from your children and their experiences?

A. Francesca Simon: My inspiration for Horrid Henry comes from being the eldest of four children, and from having a niece and nephew who fought all the time. The way I get my ideas is to think of all the ordinary situations that parents and children have, and ask myself, what would Horrid Henry do? I use myself much more than I use children: I only have one child. But Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter are two sides of everyone. The Sleeping Army

Q. DogEared: I find the HH books quite sad. Henry seems to be hated by his parents, and though he is horrid and I do pity his poor frazzled mother there is no affection or love for him, and a lot for Peter. There's one story where Henry behaves well and Peter plays up, but the parents still blame Henry. My question is, do you ever pity Henry for the way he's treated? Do you ever consider the psychology of him?
(That is the most pretentious, wanky question EVER. Sorry)

A. Francesca Simon: It's not a pretentious, wanky question, it's an interesting question. Henry's parents don't hate him, they just can't cope with him. In my experience, many parents divide their children into the good child and the bad child, and everyone knows who is playing which part, so I think the Horrid Henry books take a potentially sad situation and play it for laughs. Henry's parents are an extreme version of me at my most critical, because sometimes I think parents can spend their whole day telling off their children.
I don't pity Henry because he is so indomitable, and I admire his boldness and his resilience. Henry appeals to the rebel in everybody. It also happens to be true that parents always blame the 'bad child'.

Q. Eirwen: My daughter would like to see a second book in the Freya and the Chessmen series. Any plans in the pipeline for this?

A. Francesca Simon: I am writing the sequel as we speak, but this time it's the Gods who come to Earth.

Q. Calypso: Hello Francesca, big fans of your books here and my kids were brought up on Horrid Henry. I've heard some parents say they won't read the books to their children because they encourage bad behaviour and make good behaviour look uncool. What do you say to that?

A. Francesca Simon: Horrid Henry gives the illusion of great wickedness, but in fact he does nothing that every child in the world hasn't done. I would love to meet the siblings who have never called each other names, hit each other, tried to get one another into trouble, fought over the TV remote, etc. What Henry does though is provide a cathartic outlet for this kind of behaviour, and like all literature you get the fun of behaving badly without any of the consequences. So it is a chance to release your inner imp without being punished.
Peter is so extreme that I don't think you could really say his behaviour is good. And one of the things that very much surprised me when I started writing the books, was how much parents disliked Peter. He is absolutely not the child they wished they had. Peter's main motivation is to show up his brother. I actually think it's great when parents read Horrid Henry to their children and they can laugh as a family about the rivalries and I also think it's a way of a parent saying to their child, I know sometimes you hate your brother and you hate me, but I can cope with this. And there's something very forgiving in that acceptance.

Q. Catclarks: My children are wondering if you are going to continue to write more in the Freya series?
I absolutely love the Lewis Chessmen partly because I grew up in Lewis so have the local connection. The chessmen are meant to represent fearsome warriors but their faces are almost comical. I would love to know how they came to be on Uig beach where they were found. What is it that you find so fascinating about the chessmen?

A. Francesca Simon: I am hard at work on a sequel and I envisage one more book (so that totals three books). It started as a one-off book, but it just grew too big for one story. I never, ever plan to write more than one book at a time.
No-one knows how the chessmen came to be buried on Uig beach, which adds to their mystery. I fell in love with the chessmen when I first saw them in the British Museum in the late '70s and I used to have a poster of them in my university room. What intrigued me most was why they look so miserable, and I've always wondered what their story was, so it's an idea I've had in the back of my head for many, many years.
The chessmen are very mysterious, and they're comical as well as being dour, and that's just an irresistible combination!

Q. LadySybildeChocolate: Hi Francesca, How did you manage to get your first book published? I'm writing picture books and am finding it very difficult. I do get agents and publishers interested but it never lasts.

A. Francesca Simon: It took me a year to get published after a lot of rejections. It's always been extremely hard to get published, but my agent continued sending my book to publishers and then eventually MacMillan accepted it. But if you have an agent, you're already doing well, so good luck!

Q. DogEared: I have a lot of admiration for you. And your hair.

A. Francesca Simon: Frizz-Ease and I are best friends.

Q. FashionEaster: What do you think of the cartoon adaptations and do you get much input into those?

A. Francesca Simon: I have nothing to do with the cartoons, and the few I've seen do not, to my mind, reflect the humour or the spirit of Horrid Henry.

Q. gazzalw: Just wondered what inspired you to write a story centred around the Lewis Chessmen, as an American living on this Isle - had you fallen in love with them at the British Museum and further research had just intrigued you more and more? Or did you always think there was a story to tell about them even when you were growing up in the USA?

A. Francesca Simon: It's not so much that I 'borrowed shamelessly', I deliberately was using the myths and extending them, in fact much more directly than J.R.R. Tolkien did. I only encountered the Lewis chessmen when I came to England to do a second degree; I didn't know about them when I lived in North America. However, I've always loved mythology.

Q. Ishoes: No question just a BIG THANK YOU to francesca-my ds has learning difficultes and struggles with reading. The Horrid Henry books are one of the few fiction books that he will sit and try and read without too much nagging on my part.

A. Francesca Simon: A lot of parents have told me that the Horrid Henry books are the first books that their child ever read for fun and for pleasure, and books that they actually chose to read, which is a huge compliment. This was not planned, but the Horrid Henry books seem very successful with children who are dyslexic, or who are autistic, or who have Asperger's.

Q. akaemmafrost: Will you be doing any book signings in West London? When is your next Horrid Henry book coming out?

A. Francesca Simon: The next Horrid Henry book, Horrid Henry's Monster Movie, has just been published. At the moment no plans to do any book signings in West London, though I am appearing at the pop-up festival in King's Cross at the end of June.

Q. MarkGruffalo: The Horrid Henry movie was abysmal. Truly truly awful. I understand you had no part in it. How did it feel seeing what they had done to your work? (you do not need to reply if the question brings you painful flashbacks).
Or maybe you liked it. Tell me you didn't like it!

A. Francesca Simon: I never saw the film. I read the script, and that was enough. Keep reading the books...

Q. RachelMumsnet: Francesca, we'd also like to ask our two standard MN Bookclub questions (which we like to ask all authors, and will be archived on the site):
Which childhood book most inspired you?
What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?

"I wanted Freya to be a very ordinary girl, who discovers within herself, attributes and courage that she didn't know she had. Because something I very much believe, is that no-one knows what will be useful to them in adversity."

A. Francesca Simon: 1. Edward Eager's book, Half Magic, most inspired me. This was a book about magic coming into the lives of a very ordinary, squabbly, single parent family and it made me believe that maybe magic could happen to me as well. I've always been interested in the idea of magic being unreliable and unpredictable, which is something that I pick up in Sleeping On Me, when Woden's charms do not have the expected effect.
2. Write what you want, not what you think the market wants.

Q. Merrylegs: Francesca - my boys really liked HH when they were younger, and everytime I read 'it was the work of a moment' I would smile to myself because Edward Eager was my most adored author as a child so I kind of feel you are a kindred spirit!

A. Francesca Simon: I have read every Edward Eager book at least twelve times . Sadly my son didn't like the books, which makes me feel he must have been a changeling.

Q. Schilke: Hello Francesca. This is my dd1's book review. She's 8.
My favourite part was when Freya blew the horn. My favourite character was Alfi. The funniest part was the sentence "Snot scratched his bum." The worst part was when Snot died. I didn't like that bit because it made me feel sad. The scariest part was when the wolves came.
She thought it was brilliant.

A. Francesca Simon: Delighted that your daughter enjoyed the book. I did laugh at her choice of the funniest bit, and I'm intrigued that she found the wolves much scarier than visiting Hell.

Q. gazzalw: I have Lewis Chessmen King and Queen replicas sitting resplendent on a bookshelf, so the children have grown up asking about them. So thank you for the book - both DCs will enjoy - one to be read to and the other to be encouraged to read.... Think I might get more out of it that them too!

A. Francesca Simon: If you want to visit the originals, they are in room 40 of the British Museum; my second home!

Q. edam: Ds wants to ask, did you have an irritating little brother (and did he inspire Perfect Peter)? And why did you write a book with a male main character? (No criticism, he's just interested.)

A. Francesca Simon: I had two irritating younger brothers, but they inspired Beefy Bert, not Perfect Peter, because they both like saying 'I dunno', which is all this character ever says.
Believe it or not, it's always accidental whether my main character is male or female, and I tend to alternate. Horrid Henry started life as a one-off story, I had no idea it would grow into this series, so it was completely accidental. That said I knew I needed a strong female character - step forward Moody Margaret. Because I have one son, I do tend to default to male characters. But I do try to balance it out.

Q. LottieJenkins: Were Henry and Peter based on two children or several different children??

A. Francesca Simon: Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter are two sides of everyone : the side that wants to build the sandcastle and the side that wants to stomp on it. So they are archetypes, rather than being based on two existing children.

Q. jepa: My son wanted to ask if you plan to write more but that’s already been covered early in the webchat .
So can I ask what is your inspiration - was there a horrid Henry in your life ?

A. Francesca Simon: I'm writing at least two more books, not including the latest Horrid Henry's Monster Movie, which just came out a few days ago.
"Was there a Horrid Henry in your life" Yes, me. I was beautifully behaved in school, and badly behaved at home, so I am able to incorporate both Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter.

Q. birdsofshoreandsea: DS has now read it twice because he liked it so much. He says it was "really really good". His favourite bit was where Freya flew with the falcon's skin. He thought it was a funny fantasy book, suitable for ages 4 to 10. He liked that it showed that girls can be brave as well as boys. He said it wasn't scary except for the dragon that ate dead bodies. He knew the children would not get turned to ivory "because basically then the story would be over"!

A. Francesca Simon: Thank you so much for the lovely review; I wanted Freya to be a very ordinary girl, who discovers within herself, attributes and courage that she didn't know she had. Because something I very much believe, is that no-one knows what will be useful to them in adversity.

Q. RachelMumsnet (MNHQ) Thanks so much Francesca for joining us today and to everyone who joined in our discussion and for making our first Children's book of the month a success.

A. Francesca Simon: I've really enjoyed reading the reviews of the Sleeping Army, so please keep them coming and I will be checking back to read them. Thanks for having me.

Last updated: about 3 years ago