Fifty years after they began, Mr Men books have sold 85 million copies. Teacher Kath Garner pays tribute to the brilliant adman behind them
It began 50 years ago with an orange blob – which became a tickle – that became one of the characters in the phenomenon that became the Mr Men series of books. These iconic little books remain as popular as ever and seal Roger Hargreaves’s position as one of the bestselling children’s authors in Britain.
The idea for Mr Tickle, the Mr Man with the orange body and extraordinarily long arms (Roger himself was six foot five), is thought to have come out of a conversation with his then-six-year-old son, Adam. Adam apparently asked, ‘What does a tickle look like?’
Or was Mr Tickle purely a character who evolved from Roger’s vivid imagination? No one knows. But the character led to a series of over 85 books that captured the hearts of the nation’s children and quickly became a bedtime favourite read. The latest, out this year, is Little Miss Kind.
Following National Service in the RAF, Yorkshire-born Roger Hargreaves (1935-88) began in advertising, working his way from junior copyrighter to creative director. But an early talent for drawing, a keen sense of humour and a desire to spend more time at home with his young family led him to try fulfilling a childhood ambition of becoming a cartoonist.
Turning his thoughts to children’s books, Roger, led by his experience in advertising, was very clear on what he was trying to achieve. He wanted to create a short read (one that could be enjoyed in five minutes); something bright and colourful with engaging pictures that even the youngest child would find appealing; and something presented in a small format so that it was easy for little hands to hold.
Mr Tickle emerged from that original orange blob doodle in August 1971. With its colourful pictures and simple storyline, recounting the mischief caused by Mr Tickle, tickling upstanding members of the community and ending with the possibility of the reader themselves being tickled, it proved an immediate publishing hit and led to the launch of the first six books in the series.
Mr Tickle was joined by Mr Bump, Mr Greedy, Mr Happy, Mr Nosy and Mr Sneeze. They were heralded at the launch as ‘simple entertainment for children aged three to eight, whether readers or listeners’, costing a very affordable 20p each.
Aged eight myself when they were launched, I was considered too old to buy these books. But I delighted in visiting younger friends, whose bookshelves I could raid and have a sneaky read.
Mr Bump, with his bright blue body, bandaged head and tummy, became a favourite, as did the bright yellow Mr Happy with his permanent smile and desire to make everybody else happy.
Later, when I became a mum, the nervous and quaking Mr Jelly became the firm favourite: my children loved seeing him transform into someone much braver. The characters all have normal human traits that children and adults alike can relate to and identify with, making them favourites across the globe.
The initial books were an immediate success and quickly led to six more titles. In 1974, the books were rebranded Mr Men. The name became internationally known, with the books translated into 15 languages across 22 countries.
Thanks to his advertising background, Roger realised there was enormous potential for his characters. He sold the rights to third-party clients with a variety of products, including bedding, food, toys, stationery and clothing. So the characters gained widespread recognition independently of the books – and also fuelled demand for further titles.
In 1975, the stories and characters were transformed into a BBC cartoon series with actor Arthur Lowe as narrator. His voice rapidly became synonymous with the stories. By 1977, Roger was devoting all his time to the books and merchandising opportunities. He was happy to fulfil a request from an American publisher to launch a new series, aimed at appealing to young girls in 1981, called Little Miss.
Following the same format as the Mr Men books, the first three were entitled Little Miss Tiny, Bossy and Sunshine. More books swiftly followed and were again snapped up for television, this time narrated by the married actors Pauline Collins and John Alderton.
Children throughout the world could relate to the characters Roger created. The simple storylines described childhood situations they could identify with and captured emotions that they too were experiencing. Hargreaves himself said a lack of formal art training meant he couldn’t draw properly – he therefore had to keep his pictures simple.
Because he was too lazy to write a novel, he said, the short stories of his infamous characters were ideal. They were helped by his advertising background: short, to the point and with a specific target audience.
Sadly, Roger died suddenly from a stroke in 1988 at only 53. Building on his father’s success, eldest son Adam continued the legacy of the Mr Men and Little Miss series, creating a raft of new characters and exciting adventures for another generation of children, crediting them to Roger on the front cover.
Fifty years on, it is incredible to think that a simple doodle instigated such a beloved and eternally popular series of books. There is a character or situation for everyone – whether it’s snooty Mr Uppity, confused Mr Muddle or Roger’s favourite, Mr Silly, said to capture his own humour. It isn’t hard to understand how over 85 million copies have been sold. Their simplicity in structure delights each generation as they are passed down from parent to child.
Roger once said he loved the idea that when his characters were 100 years old, their readers would still be five. As I read the books once more to children I work with as a forest-school leader – and remember the children I taught in nursery and primary school, who loved the books – I can relate to that.
Slipping back easily into the persona of a five-year-old, I still laugh belly laughs at the antics of those mischievous Mr Men!