The Mr. Men and Little Miss books are one of Britain’s greatest exports – cultural icons and a publishing phenomenon.
Their adventures have been entertaining generations of fans for 50 years now, with book sales of 250 million and counting around the world. We all know a real life Mr. Silly or Mr. Grumpy. And I was forever called Little Miss Chatterbox as a child, thanks to my small stature and love of talking.
Their creator Roger Hargreaves was Britain’s third best selling author of all time at last count – but it’s his eldest son Adam who has been holding the pen for more than 30 years.
He stepped in to keep the family business running after his dad’s premature death in 1988 and has found ways to keep the characters relevant to modern children, while retaining the charm of Roger’s original concept.
As the books celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2021, we spoke the Adam, 57, about why the stories remain so popular, how he comes up with new characters and the question he posed which inspired his father’s first story all those years ago…
How did you play your part in inspiring your dad to write the first book?
I was too young to remember it but apparently I asked my dad one of those impossible questions all children like to pose to their parents, like ‘why is the sky blue?’. But mine was ‘what does a tickle look like?’. It set off a chain of thought of in his mind that you could personify a tickle and turn it into a character. And if you could personify a tickle, you could personify any human emotion or characteristic. He struck on a moment of genius, because there are loads of children’s characters that are personifications of toys or trains, but not emotions and characteristics.
Do you have any memory of him showing you the first pictures of Mr. Tickle?
I don’t – it was too far back in the mists of time. I take after Mr. Forgetful I’m afraid! I’m often asked what it was like to grow up with the Mr. Men around me but I have to say that, particularly as a teenager, I was rather awkward and difficult. It was what my dad did and I have to admit I was trying to ignore it and shun it.
Was the Hargreaves house full of Mr. Men things?
Yes, books and Mr. Men merchandise. Mugs and t-shirts and all sorts of stuff. My biggest memory as a child is that my dad did a poster promotion on the back of the books which he thought would be a small sideline, but it took off in an incredibly big way. I remember sitting at the dining room table. I was writing addresses, my brother was rolling up posters to put into tubes and my sisters were sticking stamps on. He had a little production line so he could get through the orders. It was how we earned our pocket money!
You studied art at college didn’t you?
I did a foundation course in art at Brighton when I left school but couldn’t figure out what sort of job that would lead to. I also loved being outside so I ended up going farming for six years. I think I was trying to work through the alphabet – I did As to start. Art and then agriculture!
How did your dad feel about you going into farming?
I think he was a bit bemused about me getting up at 4am in the morning and milking cows. I don’t think he understood the attraction of it, that’s for sure. I think perhaps it might have been a bit of a mini rebellion on my part.
Your father must have been drawing a lot growing up – would you sit and do art with him?
I can’t remember not drawing, I have always loved it and inherited his talents. We were always drawing together when I was little. It was brilliant with the success of the Mr. Men because once my dad started working from home and had his studio there, I had a plentiful supply of papers and pens. Although we were only allowed the pens that were about to run out! I was more interested in drawing Asterix than Mr. Men though.
Am I right in thinking he used Magic Markers to draw them?
Yes, which you sadly can’t get any more. I still do a black line drawing on paper but I scan it into a computer and it is all coloured digitally. It’s very rare I get the felt tips out now. It certainly an awful lot quicker using a computer but I don’t think it is as nice a look as the pens. The pen is a softer, richer colour than digital colour.
You were working as a dairy farmer when your dad passed away very suddenly in 1988. What happened?
He was only 53. He had a huge stroke and died within a day. It was a truly tragic moment in our lives as a family. It threw us completely, it was a devastating time. It also left a creative hole for the Mr. Men and nobody to run the business. My mother inherit it and I have to admit, I’d got to a bit of a crossroads with my love of farming. I offered to help her run the business, without any inclination or thought that I would be involved creatively.
Did your feelings towards the Mr. Men start to change once you began working with them?
I went through a very steep learning curve in many respects but certainly in that one. I came to a much greater appreciation of what my father created. I think that’s one of my regrets in life – that I wasn’t able to express to him my admiration for what he created. It was only working on it that I came to appreciate what clever a mind he had.
The Mr. Men are 50 years old now and still as popular as ever. What is so magical about them?
I think it lies in the original idea itself. Each of the characters is a personification of a part of human nature, so we all recognise and can see ourselves in the characters themselves. We have an automatic affinity with them. I think that’s the simple answer to their longevity and their success.
There’s a great amount of humour in the books, isn’t there?
I think that’s a key part of Mr. Men is the humour. It’s what my dad, and I in turn, enjoy most about writing the stories – entertaining children and amusing them. I think that’s what my dad did with the personifications, he put them into the real world and saw how much humour he could extract from the situation that that created. I really think that his daft, silly sense of humour is the cornerstone of Mr. Men and Little Miss stories.
When you realised you were going to be creating new books and characters, how much practice did that take?
I have to admit, an awful lot, especially to do it justice and to feel comfortable with what I was doing. I felt awkward about stepping that far into my father’s shoes, in a way. It felt like there was a barrier to getting to creatively involved, but within a year there was a creative hole with no new Mr. Men being drawn. There were merchandise design concepts coming through and to be honest, I didn’t think some of them were very well drawn. That’s what drove me more than anything else to get involved in the creative side of it. It took me a very long time to feel any sense of mastery of it, then took me many years before I felt comfortable enough with the whole idea to create new characters. That felt like quite a momentous step. For years I just assumed we would carry on with the list of characters my dad created.
You have done some interesting things, like the Little Miss Spice Girls and Doctor Who books. They take Mr. Men out to a new audience and keep them relevant.
It has certainly evolved Mr. Men into a new branch. It was first mooted by Sanrio who own the rights now. I was a bit bemused by the idea of how you could combine Doctor Who and Mr. Men in one preschool book. But the more I worked on it, the more it seemed to come together. It was a challenge but one I really enjoyed, a challenge in the fact I had to get a likeliness of the Doctor Who actors but in a Mr. Men style.
And how was it turning designer Stella McCartney into a Little Miss?
When we first met to discuss it, it was a lovely moment. I was pretty much in awe of her as her dad is one of the Beatles, but she really surprised me because she was in awe that my dad had written the Mr. Men and Little Miss books. I hadn’t even contemplated it.
In the world of children’s books, Roger’s characters are as iconic as Beatles songs, aren’t they?
It’s something I have noticed over the years since he has died. When I first took over, Mr. Men and Little Miss were well known but his name wasn’t quite so well known. But Roger Hargreaves has become very much more part of the brand and now as famous as the characters he created. It’s been lovely to see that recognition grow in the last 30 years.
You have very much pushed that, haven’t you? His name is always on the cover.
It’s his idea, his concept, I’ve always felt too awkward to put my own name on there. I recognise his name is part of the brand – I always felt that was important.
For the 50th anniversary, you have created five new potential characters which you are asking the public to vote on. What inspires a new Mr. Men or Little Miss character?
Yes, we decided to involve children in deciding the new characters. It will be intriguing to see which ones are picked. New ones are dictated by what characters we have already and trying to find a new emotion or trait that would work, but having a good strong story is key to it. It’s also a collaboration between us and the publisher, coming up with an initial list of names we like and whittling it down. Then if I can write a story about it!
Do you have a character that is a personal favourite?
I have two. I like drawing Mr. Bump in particular. He’s the perfect visual for a bump. But my favourite story is Mr. Silly, because I love the sense of humour in it. In its really daft way, it is really clever. I feel it encapsulates my dad’s sense of humour. I imagine it would have been his favourite as well. He certainly wrote a lot of books on the same subject, as there is a Mr. Nonsense and a Little Miss Scatterbrain and a Little Miss Dotty.
He wrote Little Miss Twins about your younger sisters, didn’t he?
I think that was one of the few books where we know exactly who he has based it on.
If he was alive today, how do you think he would feel seeing the 50 year legacy of his stories?
I think he would be quite amazed. I don’t think he could have envisaged that Mr. Men would still be as successful and as popular 50 years on – he would have been so chuffed. He was quite an ambitious man, he wanted to create something and for it to have stood the test of 50 years, he would have been delighted. It’s an astounding achievement and a testament to have brilliant his idea was. It transfers to other languages and cultures very easily. He also visualised it brilliantly. The drawings are so bold and simple – they were very unique at the time when he did it. I can’t say how full of admiration I am for it all.
Mr. Tickle: 50th Anniversary Edition by Roger Hargreaves is on sale now. It includes a special gold cover and illustrated story about the origins of the Mr. Men. £6.99 (paperback), Egmont. Buy from Amazon