Review of the Day: Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon
Naughty bad little boys are the joy of the sometimes naughty, often good little readers. There’s the vicarious thrill of reading about a kid who’s bad, knows it, and still goes through with behavior not always on the up and up. In America, we have our fair share of these fellows. Now Rotten Ralph and Horrible Harry have a challenger to their bad behavior based throne. From England comes Horrid Henry, the boy who will gleefully ruin a dance performance, torture his perfect little brother, sabotage a family outing, and generally act in a rather naughty manner unless caught and told to do otherwise. And even then he’ll probably still continue. He may be one of the least charming fellows you, the adult, will ever meet. And your children? The first time he throws someone else’s jacket in the mud your kids will be his, heart and soul. For those parents who have complained that Junie B. Jones is too much of a handful for their kids, steer clear of Horrid Henry. He’s funny, he’s nasty, and he’s a hard one to duplicate, that’s for certain.
In four stories Henry wavers between being merely bad to downright awful. "Horrid Henry’s Perfect Day" describes a single 24-hour period when Henry vows to be just as perfect as his annoying little angel-like brother, Perfect Peter. What he fails to predict, however, is how quickly this disturbs and unnerves his entire family. "Horrid Henry’s Dance Class" tells the tale of Henry’s attempts to stomp to his own beat in dance class, and how it eventually becomes the undoing of his recital. In "Horrid Henry and Moody Margaret" we meet Henry’s match in the form of the girl next door who won’t budge an inch when it comes to playing backyard games. And finally in "Horrid Henry’s Holiday", Henry and Peter are finally on the same side when they take a family camping trip that is not what either of them expected it to be.
I find it very interesting that the first story in the Horrid Henry series (and there are other books to follow this one) is all about Henry NOT being horrid for a change. You get three pages of a general gist of Henry’s normal behavior, and then for the rest of the tale Henry could rival St. Francis in terms of calm restraint. What’s amazing is that in those three pages, Simon has very effectively set up Henry’s normal terrible behavior. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that as he decides to be perfect for a day he’s melting his brother’s crayons on the radiator. The real advantage to making this the first story too is the fact that right from the start you can show how Perfect Peter is really just a two-faced little squirt. If you were Henry, you’d probably feel tempted to lob a pea at him too. Peter is the Little Lord Fauntleroy of the family. It would not be too difficult to picture him in a velvet suit and lace dickey. Ipso facto, Henry (in spite of his horrid nature) is instantaneously and weirdly sympathetic.
Horrid Henry, as the name implies, is a British creation but its author Francesca Simon is American to her core. What’s so interesting about this book is how strategically Ms. Simon has avoided that moment you usually find in children’s literature where the "bad" kid reveals a heart of gold. If Henry has such a heart, it is well and truly hidden. No, Simon seems to be channeling folks like Joan Aiken, whose Arabel and Mortimer series was the ultimate in naughty ravens. And since illustrator Tony Ross has a style vaguely reminiscent of Quentin Blake’s, you’re going to hear Roald Dahl invoked around this series as well. That’s not a bad thing. Simon certainly has tapped into that kind of madcap, inventive nuttiness. But in spite of her American status and the fact that the series has been translated into Americanese (my first clue was when they called a snack "chips" and not "crisps"), the books feel bloody British. I mean, I think American kids might get the joke about bad kids fighting for the chance to play Captain Hook, but it still feels specific.
The humor is hard to pin down and describe. How do you define a book where the hero’s teddy bear is named Mr. Kill? The American edition of this book has a series of quotes and positive reviews of Horrid Henry, at the start, undoubtedly strategically placed so as to waylay any potential parental complaints. One of these quotes comes from author Emily Turner who writes, "What is brilliant about the books is that Henry never does anything that is subversive. She creates an aura of supreme naughtiness (of which children are in awe) but points out that he operates within a safe and secure world." I don’t entirely agree with this statement since I’m not entirely certain that Henry isn’t his own distinctive brand of subversive. Maybe it would be better to say that he’s not intentionally subversive. But when it comes to dancing to the beat of his own drum during a recital or finding dry wood during a camping trip, Henry manages to get just exactly what he wants without intentionally (but directly) going against the status quo. However, I’d agree with Ms. Turner that the naughtiness you find here is in a "safe and secure world." And it is precisely that situation that will be most alluring to the child readers.
Kids crave naughtiness and many children’s authors respect that. They have for years. Heck, even the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books operate on the assumption that naughtiness has its place. Horrid Henry will definitely appeal to those kids who have graduated from Captain Underpants and need a slight step up in reading levels, without going a step down in terms of trouble making. An enjoyable early chapter book and reluctant reader pick.
First Line: "Henry was horrid."
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- Great Kid Books has a nice giveaway going on, if you’re interesting in garnering a copy.
- Along similar lines, go here and you can find Teacher’s Guides, a time machine contest, and a chance to get a complimentary book of your own.
- Not one to fall behind the times, Henry has his own "horrible" website which you are invited to view "at your peril". He’s on Facebook and, I kid you not, Twitter too.
- Proof that British school children are entranced by Henry.
- Henry also has his own British animated tv show and upcoming video game. Here‘s the opening for the show.
But even more amusing? Henry live and on-stage.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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