I believe that reading the right book can be a transformative experience. As a mother, children's bookseller for almost two decades and ardent reader of children's literature, I want to help kids start their reading journey on the right path and spark a life long love of reading. Insightful reviews and excellent suggestions of similar titles will ensure that readers are never without a good book in hand.
Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon, pictures by Tony Ross, 90 pp RL 2
If Junie B Jones was a boy and had been written by Roald Dahl instead of Barbara Park, she would be Horrid Henry. The creation of Francesca Simon, an American who has spent most of her adult life in England, the first Horrid Henry
book was published some fifteen years ago and there are currently has
sixteen titles in the series, including my favorite (not out in the
States yet) Horrid Henry's Nits. Tony Ross, who's illustrations are reminiscent of but less edgy than the work of Quentin Blake,
current cover artist for Roald Dahl's works for children, bring Henry
and his family and friends to life. Now, for the first time ever, Henry
is crossing the pond and maybe he will give Junie B and Jack and Annie
from the Magic Tree House series a run for their money.
These are the kind of books that parents will probably loathe but kids will love. Henry is a horrid child, and his parents can frequently be heard telling him not to be horrid in each of the four stories that make up the books in this series. Henry has a younger brother, Perfect Peter. All of the characters, the children anyway, have an adjective that precedes their name and starts with the same letter. There seem to be children for almost every letter in the alphabet in these books. There is Prissy Polly, Weepy William, Lisping Lilly, Singing Soraya and Vomiting Vera. Where Henry is unrealistically ill behaved, Peter is equally unrealistically well behaved. Naturally, Henry spends a lot of his horrid energy on tormenting Peter, who is a pretty easy mark. The first story in Horrid Henry is titled, "Henry's Perfect Day," in which he decides to be perfect, or like brother, anyway. Of course this delights his parents and aggravates his brother no end, which in turn gives Henry the strength he needs to continue on being a well behaved, helpful child. Chapter 3, in which Horrid Henry and Moaning Margaret dare each other to eat "GLOP," a disgusting concoction of assorted foods found about the kitchen, is pretty entertaining also. Who among us did not make a similar sort of mixture at some point in our childhoods? My favorite story, however, is in the book Horrid Henry and the Mega-Mean Time Machine. Henry and Peter are given the box from a new washing machine to play with and, when Henry's turn is up he refuses to turn it over to Peter, telling him it is a time machine that he is too young to use. Peter wants to turn the box into a play house with cut out windows and flower boxes but Henry convinces him otherwise by taking a solo trip to the future. Upon his return he tells Peter that boys in the future wear dresses and lipstick, every one eats vegetables and has tons of home work and they all speak the Ugg language. When Peter is dressed properly and transported to the future, Henry is there pretending to be Zog, his own great-great-great-great-great granddaughter and explains the familiar surroundings by telling Peter that he is so famous in the future that his house has become a museum and that is why nothing has changed.
Francesca Simon is a great writer with a real ear for children's dialogue and thought processes. While the characters can seem static and archetypal somtimes, Simon draws on a rich vein of everyday experiences - from eating in a fancy restaurant to reading a book or doing a school project- for her main characters to react to. Sometimes the stories just seem like more of the same thing - Henry being horrid in various ways. But, sometimes there are bright spots of inspiration, like when Peter decides to get revenge on Henry for always tricking him. Either way, these books will serve the purpose of getting kids to read and read often which is exactly what they need at this point in their budding careers as lovers of literature and seekers of knowledge. And, like Junie B Jones and the Magic Tree House, there will soon be enough of Horrid Henry books on the shelf to give emerging readers all the practice they need in reading chapter books. While parents may not be thrilled with Henry and his highjinks, he is definitely a step up from Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants in terms of providing a more complex plot structure and vocabulary and less (none, in fact) potty humor.
Don't forget, your kids will be the ones reading these books, not you, so you don't really have to enjoy them as long as you feel like you can find a way to explain Henry's behavior in conjunction with your own family values - if that is a clarification your child even needs. I realize that children are influenced by their surroundings, be it television, movies, computer/video games and peers, but I remain skeptical with the idea that children are equally influenced as heavily by the books that they read. I believe that any child with a solid foundation in reality can read Horrid Henry and laugh at him, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and not be influenced to go out and smash a flower bed, scream in public or tease a sibling. Horrid Henry should be considered part of the fantasy genre, really. And what child doesn't fantasize about doing whatever s/he wants, whenever s/he wants to? Ok, I'll admit it, I actually kind of like Horrid Henry. He reminds me a bit of Edina and Patsy from the BBC comedy of the 1990s, Absolutely Fabulous, who said and did whatever they wanted and were complete hedonists. Horrid Henry (and Eddy & Pats) do whatever they want, whenever. I have always wanted to live that way, for a day anyway, and I am sure that children (who are told "no" several times a day) yearn for that as well.
If your child likes this book, you might suggest these, or any, books in the Stink series by Megan McDonald: