This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Being an adult fan of something aimed at small children (especially when you don’t have any of your own), can sometimes lead to awkward moments. A few years ago I went to a book signing at Selfridges so I could meet Adam Hargreaves. Although his name doesn’t appear on the covers, Adam took over the writing and illustrating of the Mr Men books after the death of his father Roger (their original creator) in 1988 and both of them are huge heroes of mine.
It was a busy event and Adam was flanked by giant plush incarnations of Mr. Bump and Mr. Happy, who seemed more popular than he was with the primarily school-age crowd. There were kids everywhere and they were all acting like they’d been shot up with street-grade E numbers; running around, shrieking, leaping on Mr. Happy, kicking poor Mr Bump and utterly failing to form an orderly queue. It was all I could do not to get caught in the crossfire but I gritted my teeth and waited. Eventually, I got to what passed for the “front” and presented Adam with a copy of my favourite Mr Men book; Mr Grumble. When he asked who he should make it out to and I responded with “Craig”, Adam smiled a knowing, sympathetic smile. “Is Craig a bit of a Grumble then?” he asked. Sheepishly, I responded “Uh.. yes, I am…”
We both laughed about it but, looking around, I was pretty obviously the only adult there who wasn’t a parent and this was maybe a little weird? However, the fact that the Mr Men are second only to Harry Potter as the bestselling British book franchise of all-time and the sheer variety of merchandise available for grown-ups – from t-shirts and bath products to cufflinks and car accessories – tells me I’m by no means the only adult fan. Still, most people seem surprised when I tell them one of my greatest pleasures in life is the Mr Men. They might seem out of place on a bookshelf mostly populated by martial arts and horror films but honestly, what’s not to love about these books? In my mind, they’re nothing less than a work of genius.
The first one – Mr Tickle – was published in 1971, which means 2016 marks its 45th anniversary, the reason Den of Geek (perhaps not knowing what they were unleashing) asked me if I’d like to write a piece in celebration. The series was created after Adam, just six years old at the time, asked his dad “what does a tickle look like?” and Roger (an advertising copywriter at the time) sketched him a round, long-armed orange man with a blue hat. Clearly, umm, tickled by his own work, Roger produced the first six Mr Men books – Mr Tickle, Mr Greedy, Mr Happy, Mr Nosey, Mr Sneeze and Mr Bump – and pitched them to publishers who weren’t quite sure what to make of it all. In a world of British children’s literature that was still very much in the idyllic rural style of Beatrix Potter and Enid Blyton, the Mr Men books were anarchic and bold and a big risk but one that, when taken, paid off quickly. Within 3 years, these affordable, pocket-sized and utterly irresistible stories had sold over a million copies.
45 years later and the brand’s still selling at an astonishing rate (statistics published in 2010 suggested 1 Mr Men book was sold every 27 seconds between 2000 and 2009), which perhaps poses the question of just what it is that makes this seemingly simple collection of characters such a uniquely evergreen prospect.
On the most basic level, it’s because the Mr Men and Little Misses inhabit something universal – each one represents a mood, a feeling or a common act that we all have or do. The majority of the stories begin with each character’s primary trait at its most heightened – e.g. Mr Greedy wakes up and eats an enormous breakfast; Mr Noisy sets about his daily errands by bellowing at everyone he encounters – but, throughout the story, they’ll learn how to, well, rein it in a bit. I realise that sounds super-judgy but the books – unlike so many other children’s stories – aren’t about muting a unique quality to fit in with others. They’re about making the most of these qualities, of celebrating who and what you are, while also considering others and their unique qualities. The books teach us how to be well-rounded, to understand each facet of human nature and to respect and balance them all. They’re a guide for living.
There’s more than just life lessons though. Right from the beginning to the new books, the Hargreaveses mix things up with unpredictable twists and a huge helping of silly fun. There’s no limit to where their imaginations can take a plot. All of the books have surrealistic and fantastical elements and often – as in adult fantasy literature – the weirdness is used to represent something real. In the first Mr Happy book, for example, he finds another Mr Man in a mysterious cave who is identical to him in every respect except one. Mr Happy sports a gigantic smile across his face but the doppelganger – Mr Miserable – wears a frown. After various attempts to reverse the frown, Mr Happy takes Mr Miserable to Happyland and eventually gets him to smile (and Mr Miserable is never heard from again throughout the series). Children are delighted by the whimsy of the story (and the amusing artwork as Mr Miserable’s face slowly upturns to a happy one page by page) but for adults, especially those who can relate to the idea of there being another version of themselves that’s inconsolably miserable, it has a real poignancy and – of course – an ending that offers comfort.
This may seem like over-analysis but you don’t need to take a particularly deep reading of these books to love them and, of course, what they mean to one person could be completely different to what they mean to someone else. For me, a story like Mr Small is sweet and funny but also tremendously moving. In it, our protagonist tries to find his place in the world, despite feeling like he’s too small to really do anything his larger counterparts can do. It’s a classic outsider narrative but one that swaps cynicism for hope and warmth. Mr Small does eventually settle into the perfect vocation with a little help from Roger Hargreaves himself who makes a metatextual cameo appearance (arguably the first example of metafiction in children’s literature?) and it’s lovely. It’s also these kind of batty surprises that help make the punchlines (that could be mawkish or patronising in the wrong hands) so enjoyable.
The more Mr Men books you read, the more you can appreciate the world-building. Some authors need a six tonne tome of elaborate scientific detail to build a world but the Hargreaveses created a wonderful, fully-realised one across a series of books that rarely exceed 20 pages. Besides the Mr Men and Little Misses, there are an array of human and animal characters, including mischievous (and ever-imaginative) wizards and the ever-present Greek Chorus of worms. There’s a rich sense of place to Misterland (and its various sub-lands) and when characters cross over between books, as they so often do, it always adds a little more colour and helps reinforce the books’ sense of harmony; of wildly different characters existing together in a fully functional environment.
All of this is brought beautifully to life by the prose and the artwork. Both Hargreaveses write with a flawless economy that makes Hemingway look purple. Short simple sentences for kids’ books are nothing new but rarely do those sentences pack so much joy and invention into so few words. Likewise, the art – simplistic at first glance – is masterful. Adam Hargreaves (who also paints insanely detailed, realistic landscapes in his spare time) has said it took him years to master the “perfect curve” of Mr Happy in the style of his father and that’s no surprise.
There’s something instantly recognisable about the Mr Men style but that hits the heart in the way all great art should. It’s expert at getting across exactly the emotion it tries to convey and, in a spectrum of emotions as broad as the Mr Men’s, that’s no mean feat.
While new characters are created at a slower pace than they were in the 1970s and 80s, there are still several books a year coming out (a mix of old characters in new adventures and seasonal stories for special dates), and the controversial American co-production The Mr Men Show continues to air daily on TV all over the world. Purists may disagree, on account of its various modernised touches (it’s a far cry from the gentler-paced 1970s TV series), but I think the series perfectly captures the gleeful anarchy of the original books and is frequently laugh-out-loud funny to boot.
Even after 45 years, this stuff just never gets old, whichever way you cut it. For as long as we remain human and have emotions (so right up until Skynet’s inevitable victory then), the Mr Men stories will remain popular and much-loved because they are all of us. They may sometimes show up the worst of what we are but harsh lessons are always followed by reassurance; we may not be perfect but, more importantly, we’re not alone.