Forgive me, o gods of literacy, for I have sinned. This is my confession.
About three years ago, my (then) eight-year-old son began getting into Horrid Henry. I don’t know how much the HH phenomenon is known outside the UK, so for the benefit of the blissfully ignorant: Horrid Henry features in a series of children’s books which have, by any measure, been a major publishing success story. They have been bestsellers, and have subsequently adapted into a TV series and a movie.
The books belong to a genre we might call gross-lit. The eponymous Henry is, to put it mildly, an anti-hero. He gets into trouble all the time, shows less than zero respect for his parents, teachers or any other adults, and hates his impeccably behaved brother Perfect Peter. He farts, belches, schemes and whines with total abandon. He is, in short, a grown-up’s nightmare.
Don’t get me wrong – I can see Henry’s attraction, especially to his peer group. He’s lively, rebellious and funny. And Perfect Peter is rather irritating. But I really didn’t like the books. For one thing, I didn’t think they were especially well written or original. The naughty, rebellious schoolboy character is nothing new – think Dennis the Menace or Just William, to give just two examples – and in my opinion he’s been portrayed with more wit and style before. The fact that all the child characters are always referred to by their alliterative nicknames – as well as Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter, there is also Moody Margaret, Vomiting Vera and many more – was a joke that quickly wore thin for me.
And Henry himself, I just found unbearably annoying. He’s staggeringly selfish He’s the sort of child who sucks up a disproportionate amount of effort and attention, to the detriment of the quieter, better behaved kids around them. He was certainly not anything like my idea of a good role model, much less a hero.
What’s worse is – and this might make me sound incredibly old-fashioned – there’s little sign of a moral compass in those books. There are too often no apparent consequences to Henry’s behaviour. He’ll do something selfish and bad, upsetting the people around him – and just get away with it.
So what did I do? (This is the confession part.) One day, I took all my son’s Horrid Henry books away. I didn’t think they were a good influence, or good literature. There are better books out there, I said; read those, not these.
Right. Rant over. I am of course conscious that I am not the target audience for these books. I am also aware that the average nine-year-old boy really does find farting and belching quite funny. Horrid Henry is obviously and unashamedly aimed at children of a certain age, and boys in particular. The books are also carefully and skilfully written to be easily readable for their age group, a quality which, as I reflected on in my last post, is both important and something that doesn’t happen by accident.
Three years on from my Horrid Henry book burning spree (OK, that’s dramatic license: I didn’t burn them, I just gave them to a charity shop), I know better now. My son has never been a great reader. He often takes scant interest in the written word. He doesn’t find many books he really likes. When he does, it tends to be non-fiction rather than stories – which is fine, as long as he reads, but I wish he loved fiction the way I always have. I have tried to introduce so many new books to him, with distinctly mixed results.
But he liked Horrid Henry books. So why on earth did I take them from him? What sort of fool was I? OK, I didn’t much like them. I still don’t. But they aren’t that bad – and they’re books. And if he reads them, he’ll go on to read other, different things. I can still introduce him to other options, without taking away the things he’s already enjoying.
Today I read an article that reminds us of the obvious: if children find books they love to read, then – guess what? – they’ll read more. And more; with all the intellectual, emotional and educational benefits that we know go along with that.
Now my son is allowed to read Horrid Henry again, along with pretty much anything else he wants to. It’s far more important that he learns to associate reading with pleasure and freedom, rather than only reading what I personally (and subjectively) consider to be good literature. In any case, he’s far, far more likely to come across unsuitable or harmful material on TV, or especially online, than he is within the pages of a children’s book.
So welcome back Horrid Henry, (almost) all is forgiven. Thank you for showing my son that reading can be fun after all. Just … just try to behave a bit better from now on, will you? Set a more positive example? No? …. Oh well. As you were, then.