When Adam Hargreaves was six years old, he asked his father Roger what a tickle looked like – and an iconic series of children’s books was born.
Mr Tickle was published in 1971 and since then the series has sold an estimated 250 million copies – with another title sold somewhere in the world by the time you finish reading this sentence.
“It’s an extraordinary number of books, I find it quite mind boggling,” Hargreaves, now 58, says. He has spent the year reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Mr Men, who were joined by Little Miss characters in 1981.
There are now over 90 inhabitants of the Mr Men and Little Miss world, with each following the route forged by Roger that leads to the “holy grail”.
“That’s the holy grail, to come up with something that’s unique,” Hargreaves says. “Whether it’s simple or complex, it’s new and grabs everybody’s attention. That’s what my dad managed with the look of the Mr Men. He managed to encapsulate human emotions in the simplest form that you can imagine.
“There is an innate Britishness to them. The landscapes are very British, the interiors equally so, though stuck in the 1970s in terms of their interior decor. At the same time, they have a global appeal because they are little bits of human beings.
“The main ingredient of the success of Mr Men and Little Miss is the fact that we recognise ourselves in each of the characters – and each of the characters is a little bit of us.”
Roger Hargreaves became a household name as the books were adapted into an animated show with its memorably melancholic theme tune and wry narration by Arthur Lowe. But in 1988, at the age of 53, Hargreaves died after suffering a stroke.
Despite having had a topsy-turvy relationship with his father’s work throughout his childhood, Hargreaves took over the empire.
“Although I didn’t actually start writing stories until about 1996 or ’97,” he explains. “I was a bit slow getting going. I felt awkward and a bit of an imposter. And it wasn’t until nearly 10 years after my dad had died that I really felt enough confidence to have a go myself at creating a character.
“The first I actually wrote was for a competition we ran in a newspaper. We asked children to come up with a name and a drawing and I then turned that into a new character. So Mr Cheeky was my first.”
Today, new Mr Men and Little Miss characters are created in a slightly different way. In 2004 the family sold the rights, and they’re now owned by Japanese company Sanrio, who also have Hello Kitty in their stable.
So how is a Mr Men or Little Miss character born?
“The actual choice of character or emotional traits is a combined effort between myself, Sanrio and the publisher,” Hargreaves explains.
“We draw up a shortlist that we all like then whittle that down. My principal job is taking whatever the new names are and finding a story. That can sometimes be terribly easy and they almost write themselves. Or sometimes I can be banging my head on the desk for months.”
This year, two new characters were selected by readers. Mr Calm and Little Miss Brave definitely feel like they reflect the times we’re in.
“We came up with the list of characters before Covid happened,” Hargreaves says. “Very quickly though we were in the throes of the whole pandemic and I think brave and calm stood out as attributes that everybody saw as being useful.”
There’s also a new festive-themed book, The Christmas Contest. We are, of course, running our own Christmas contest – The Big Issue Christmas Kids Cover Competition, in association with WHSmith – so what does Hargreaves think makes a good cover?
“In my opinion, following my dad’s design sense, a lot of white. To allow space in a design shows a sign of bravery. You don’t have to try and fill every corner of the page. It’s quite nice to leave some space to allow the elements that are there to work more strongly.
“I’ve always loved the fact that my dad could put the sun in the sky but leave the sky white. Somehow that was better than trying to make it too realistic.”
The 50th anniversary has also been the opportunity to look forward to the next 50 years and beyond. Roger Hargreaves once said that it pleased him to think when his characters were 100 years old, his readers would still be five.
“Hopefully my dad’s characters will still be around and kids will still be enjoying the books,” Hargreaves says. “That would be a wonderful achievement on his part. He’d be very chuffed to see the popularity they still have and that they get passed down from generation to generation.”
Little Miss Brave and Mr Calm, published by Farshore, are available now from all good bookshops and online priced £4.99
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