Saturday, June 27, 2009

Horrid Henry Stomps Across the U.S.

A few months ago, I read an article which said that the Horrid Henry series didn't initially sell in the United States because the title character was considered such a negative role model. This reminded me of a trend I've been thinking about, the rise of the anti-hero in American culture.

Of course, any controversy about bringing Francesca Simon's series to the U.S. died when publishers looked at the kazillion dollars the series has earned in the UK, winning awards and spawning a Broadway show as well as an animated TV series. It's not a stretch to compare the success of the series in Great Britain to the popularity of the Captain Underpants books and, more recently, Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid and sequels in the United States. So be warned: as of this spring, Horrid Henry has crossed the ocean. It's kind of a homecoming in the sense that the author is actually an American. Today's review is part of a blog tour celebrating the series launch.

If you go far enough back in history, will you find beloved anti-heroes? Well, yes—they're called tricksters, and every culture seems to have them. Some of the most well-known tricksters include the African spider Anansi, the Native American figures Raven and Coyote, Brer Rabbit from the Southern black tradition, Puck and Jack in British stories, Reynart the Fox in French folktales, Hermes and Odysseus from the Greek myths, and the Norse god Loki.

Keep in mind that not all anti-heroes are tricksters. Tricksters tend to be clownish, while anti-heroes may simply be shadowy versions of heroes, e.g., Batman in place of Superman. (Or we have Edward Cullen, the perfect sweet boy next door except for that darn blood lust thing, which coincidentally gives him bad boy appeal.) As Wikipedia points out, a more current example of a trickster in our culture is Bugs Bunny. I would add Bart Simpson to the list. In fact, it's amusing to think that the country that spawned Bart wouldn't immediately welcome Horrid Henry with open arms.

Historically, trickster characters have stood in for our dark sides; they have also represented those brilliant fringe elements of society who often bring about change while making everybody nervous. A number of legends around the world involve characters such as Raven and Coyote stealing fire from the gods, or Anansi stealing stories from the gods—then passing these gifts on to humans. While Prometheus is a tamer figure from Greek mythology, the fact remains that tricksters are essentially risk-takers, and once in a while their risks pay off.

Still, it has become almost overwhelming how many anti-heroes have flooded TV, literature, and film. I read a very funny article about it last year that said anti-heroes are so prevalent it's become an eye roll-inspiring cliché. Which leads me to wonder whether the idea that "being good is boring" has completely infiltrated our society. A handful of tricksters keeps things fresh; an entire nation of tricksters sounds unpleasant.

But let's think about tricksters in children's literature, a fairly modern genre. Max, the hero of the classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are, is a small trickster in a wolf suit, able to subdue an island full of monsters who are perfectly willing to eat him up. Some of Roald Dahl's best characters are tricksters—Charlie Bucket may be a sweetie, but look at the fantastic Mr. Fox and even Matilda, who uses her powers to defeat a villain rather deviously. The Cat in the Hat is such a trickster he makes some readers anxious, and Sam I Am has a similar huckster persona. Of course, the greatest con man in literature is probably Tom Sawyer, he of the infamous fence painting scheme. (See also the title character of John Fitzgerald's The Great Brain, speaking of which.)

Horrid Henry is not simply badly behaved; he is also clever, though not invincible. Note that in legends from around the world, the trickster character is sometimes fooled by someone who turns the tables on him. This is also the case with Henry.

Why do children like reading about such a rotten kid? Because he makes them look good. Besides, he can do things they know they would never get away with—as readers all know, we find vicarious joy in accompanying characters on escapades we would never dream of trying in real life.

More than anything, Horrid Henry reminds me of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame. I remember reading an interview in which Bill Waterson was asked if he would like to have a child like Calvin. His answer was something along the lines of "You've got to be kidding!" So just picture Calvin with a British accent and an annoyingly well-behaved younger brother named Peter. Then you'll be prepared to meet Horrid Henry.

I have to say, as I read the first four books, I was thrown off a little because all of the child characters have names with obvious adjectives in front. Traditionally, such sobriquets have been a characteristic of heavily didactic stories. Then I realized that the names were basically assigned to reflect Henry's point of view. None of the other characters use those names when speaking. Henry's brother, Perfect Peter, and kids like Moody Margaret, Cross Colin, Pimply Paul, and Prissy Polly, are all defined by Henry, the star of the show.

Once I got past the name issue, I was completely sucked in by the author's mastery of the way kids talk and act. It's the same thing that makes the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books spot-on. Here's an example from the first book in the series, Horrid Henry:

Margaret had eye patches and skulls and crossbones and plumed hats and cutlasses and sabers and snickersnees.

Henry had a stick.

That was why Henry played with Margaret....

"I won't play if I can't be Hook," said Horrid Henry.

Margaret thought for a moment. "We can both be Captain Hook," she said.

"But we only have one hook," said Henry.

Which I haven't played with yet," said Peter.

"BE QUIET, prisoner!" shouted Margaret. "Mr. Smee, take him to jail."

"No," said Henry.

"You will get your reward, Mr. Smee," said Margaret, waving her hook.

Mr. Smee dragged the prisoner to jail.

"If you're very quiet, prisoner, then you will be freed and you can be a pirate, too," said Captain Hook.

"Now give me the hook," said Mr. Smee.

The Captain reluctantly handed it over.

"Now I'm Captain Hook and you're Mr. Smee," Henry shouted. "I order everyone to walk the plank!"

"I'm sick of playing pirates," said Margaret. "Let's play something else."

Simon not only has a great sense of how to pace a scene, but she has a way of using Henry's constant machinations with satisfying irony. For example, when Henry's parents agree to have Moody Margaret stay at their house while her parents are out of town, Henry makes a big stink and his parents reprimand him, telling him to be polite. But it soon becomes clear to the entire family that Margaret is a terrible guest. When Henry pulls one of his tricks to get Margaret to leave, his parents are secretly relieved. Henry is unaware of their feelings—he's just trying to get rid of the girl. For their part, readers will laugh at this second layer of storytelling.

Each of the books contains four episodes, written at about a second grade level in fairly large type. But in terms of the humor, I suspect Horrid Henry will have just as much if not more appeal to third graders. The age range listed for the series is 7-10.

In Book One, our little anti-hero stomps through his dance class while everyone else is twirling delightfully. In fact, Horrid Henry stomps through most of these stories, managing to destroy a camping trip, a wedding, and dinner out at a restaurant, among other events. He plays a diabolical trick on his brother using a time machine (another homage to Waterson?), but Perfect Peter gets him back by concocting public evidence that Henry has a crush on Margaret. (One of Peter's few successes against his big brother.) In Book Two, I especially enjoyed Henry's frantic efforts to trick the "Tooth Fairy," who at one point leaves him a note reading: "Nice try Henry." The title story from Horrid Henry's Stinkbomb is another standout, focusing on how Henry's boys' club plots against Margaret's girls' club and vice versa. To add to the humor, each ringleader is assisted by a traitor as Simon plays with ideas such as the speed at which children quarrel and make up.

Tony Ross's illustrations put the finishing touch on this series. There's a little Quentin Blake in the artwork, evoking Roald Dahl's books. Mostly, though, Henry and friends are Ross's own small masterpieces of childhood crankiness and prankiness.

I haven't seen any of the TV episodes, but Francesca Simon's Henry stories remind me of a really good sitcom, say Malcolm in the Middle. Her series is not only well written, funny, clever, and subversive, it is also the perfect fit for a generation of kids raised on TV, DVD, and Internet storytelling.

Note for Worried Parents: In case it's not completely clear from the post, Henry is not a good role model! However, his devious efforts often backfire.


Kate Coombs said...

Hmm. Looks like I'd better enable comment moderation in here! I'm starting to get spammed...

MeeMaw YaYa said...

Looks like I'll be adding a new series to my school library in the fall! I couldn't keep the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series or Captain Underpants on the shelves last year, so I suspect with proper introduction, Horrid Henry should do the same. I'm always glad to see books that boys in particular will like. I enjoy your blog.

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, MeeMaw YaYa! I'm on that same quest, always looking for books for reluctant boy readers.

BookChook said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your remarks about tricksters and anti-heroes. I have the set of HH on my tbr pile, and looking forward to them even more now. Have you read Richmal Compton's William books? Just a wonderful series, and a similar sounding character.

Kate Coombs said...

I looked up Richmal Compton on Amazon, and his William books aren't currently available; I'll have to keep an eye out at the library! The other character I've seen HH compared to is Dennis the Menace.