His name says it all. Horrid Henry schemes to trick the tooth fairy into leaving him money when hasn’t lost a tooth and causes his cousin’s groom to fly head-first into the wedding cake. And he constantly concocts creative ways to sabotage his brother Perfect Peter, who loves vegetables and hates TV. American kids will finally have a chance to meet this merry mischief maker—whose books have sold more than 12 million copies in the U.K. alone and have been translated into 27 languages—when Sourcebooks’ Jabberwocky imprint releases four Horrid Henry paperbacks next month.

Launched by Orion in 1993, the Horrid Henry series is penned by Francesca Simon and illustrated with line art by Tony Ross. Simon, an American who has lived in England since 1977, became a journalist after earning a graduate degree at Oxford. It wasn’t until she began reading to her son, who was born in 1989, that she tried her hand at children’s books. “As I read to him, I found I was suddenly flooded with ideas for books,” she says. “The moment I started writing I realized it completely suited me. To write for children you have to be funny and have a good sense of the absurd, but also be very logical, since children notice any contradictions. I am all those things—and very silly.”

Francesca Simon.
Photo: Francesco Guidicini.

Simon published a picture book, But What Does the Hippopotamus Say? before she began creating the Horrid Henry tales, which she explains “came to be by accident.” When her editor at Orion suggested she write a first reader, the author says, “I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I failed at it. Instead I came up with a story about Horrid Henry, which wasn’t suitable as a first reader, but my editor said, ‘Let me see if I can make this work,’ and then came back to me and asked for three more Henry books.” Simon happily obliged.

Soon after the fourth installment, Horrid Henry’s Nits, came out in the U.K., the series “really took off,” Simon recalls; each Horrid Henry title has sold more copies than the previous installment. Simon credits teachers for initially getting students excited about the books and for kids’ subsequent word-of-mouth endorsement. The author has been told by many teachers and parents that the stories’ humorous treatment of sibling rivalry has hooked on reading kids who never before picked up a book by choice. “Sibling rivalry is a very potent subject and the books confront it head-on, which is very liberating for children,” she observes.

Currently the hero—or anti-hero—of the top-selling chapter book series in the U.K., Horrid Henry has also made his way onto the small screen in Britain, starring in a popular animated TV show based on the books. And he appears on the stage in “Horrid Henry Live and Horrid!,” an adaptation by playwright John Godber, which had a run in the West End during last Christmas season and will tour the U.K. in April.

Though puzzled that her series did not find an American publisher sooner, Simon is “really thrilled” that the Horrid Henry books will now be released on her native turf, and that the folks at Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky “instantly, completely understood the books.” Equally pleased is Sourcebooks founder and publisher, Dominique Raccah, who first encountered the series at the Bologna Book Fair three years ago, when Jabberwocky acquisitions editor Lyron Bennett spotted it.

Bennett had read about the success of the Horrid Henry books, but had never seen them, so made a point of visiting the Orion booth at the fair. “I was blown away that this bestselling series wasn’t being published in the U.S.” he says. “When the series was first pitched to American publishers, it wasn’t as big yet and publishers passed on it. Perhaps a bit of the American Puritan heritage pushes back against the naughty kid story, even though these books are incredibly well-written.” At the time, Bennett had been a children’s editor for just under a year and, he notes, “I looked at it with a fresh eye. I thought the books were spectacular and knew we could do a lot with them.”

“Lyron came back to our booth very excited about the series, and I soon saw why,” Raccah recalls. “Francesca deals with real life, with the fundamental dynamics of family and friendship, in a very funny way. Part of the decision to purchase the series was my grandchildren’s reaction to the books. They immediately wanted to know how many more there were to read.”

The publisher will release two more Horrid Henry books in July: Horrid Henry and the Mummy’s Curse and Horrid Henry and the Soccer Fiend. Due in fall are Horrid Henry Tricks and Treats and Horrid Henry’s Christmas, as well as the debut book, Horrid Henry, packaged with an audio CD featuring actress Miranda Richardson reading.

Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky’s Horrid Henry launch campaign includes 180,000 “chap books” (containing a sample story), some of which will be mailed to stores, libraries and schools. The chap books will also reach kids through the publisher’s partnership with book fair company Imagine Nation Books, which will distribute the samples to thousands of elementary schools across the country. Also planned is a floor display and tie-in promotion on a dedicated Web site.

An early fan is Susan Aikens, Borders’ fiction buyer for ages six to nine, whose stores will be promoting the series beginning in April and continuing through the summer. “I hope we can make this series as popular here as it is in the U.K.,” she says. In her first-ever letter extolling the virtues of a chapter-book series to Borders’ customers and booksellers, Aikens writes, “As a parent of a child who avoided reading at all costs, I know it can be hard to find books your kids want to read. I’m thrilled to recommend a real gem.”

Horrid Henry fans will be happy to learn that Simon, who has written 18 Horrid Henry books to date, still has “tons of ideas” for future stories. “I get so many letters from kids asking me to please, please write more,” she says. “I will certainly write another six and after that I will have to see. I find Henry quite delightful and I still want to spend time with him. So as long as I enjoy it, I will carry on writing these books.”

Horrid Henry,Horrid Henry’s Stinkbomb, Horrid Henry and the Mega-Mean Time Machine andHorrid Henry Tricks the Tooth Fairy by Francesca Simon, illus. by Tony Ross. Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, $4.99 each paper ISBN 978-1-4022-1775-3; -1779-1; -1780-7; -2275-7