Amongst my childhood memories (the ones that I haven’t yet managed to blot out by substance abuse or electro-shock therapy) I have one or two happy ones. I can’t think of many right now, but I’m sure I’ll think of some later.
I have happy memories of my parents encouraging reading. It is something that has stuck with my sister and I ever since, and it surprises people who meet me about how much I read. I always seem to give a first-impression of being a knuckle-dragger. I sound like a yokel. I dress like I should be begging for small change. And on the few occasions when I can be found wearing a suit, I am usually labelled “the defendant”. But I read a LOT, and it’s all thanks to my parents.
I have fond memories of the books we were introduced to; the ones we would be read before bed. Probably the earliest I can remember are the Mr Men series by Roger Hargreaves.
My sister and I loved them. I distinctly remember Mum being quite excited when she first bought them, and we would have one read to us each night. And yet it didn’t seem all that long before she tired of them.
I remember this being very odd at the time. How could any sane person NOT want to read upon the exciting exploits of Mr Happy, finding another world inside a tree trunk? So what if we had already read it four times this week?
Anyway, now we fast-forward our story to about five years ago. I’m married, our son is born, and my wife buys the complete collection of Mr Men books to read to him because she has happy memories too. We look forward to replaying what it was like when we were little. And after only a few days of reading just one book per night, my wife and I have an epiphany. A naked-lunch moment. A moment of pure wisdom and clarity. A discovery.
And it is this: Mr Men books are shite.
And suddenly it all comes flooding back. Of how my mother bought the complete set nearly thirty years ago, seemed very keen to read them with us … but then seemed to tire very quickly. And like many other aspects of my foray into parenthood, I feel I am seeing it all for the second time, but from the perspective of my parents. I am beginning to understand what they went through. When my kids want to read Mr-feckin-Tickle for the tenth time, I find myself making the pathetic excuses and plea-bargaining tactics that my parents made with me. Truly: I am experiencing the Great Circle of Life – and it’s a stinking hole.
Sadly, this revelation has come too late for my son. He was hooked for some long, painful months, and it took some time for me to be able to sneak those damn books out of his room and hide them. But we have learnt from this mistake, and if anyone tries to bring one of those books near my daughter (who is fast approaching bedtime-story age) they will be taken down by snipers. And that threat extends to my mother, who has an evil streak and has thoroughly enjoyed my six years as a parent, watching me “get what I deserve”.
If you quite fancy the idea of making your own Mr Men books – possibly with the long-term aim of selling them to Chorion for 28 million quid – here is a handy template. Just fill in the blanks.
Mr (blank) lived in (blank)-land. He was the (blank)-iest (blank) you could ever wish to meet. Do you know, Mr (blank) was so (blank) that he used to (blank) the paperboy with his leftover (blank)s. He would (blank) Mrs Miggins the neighbour every time she did (something that is the opposite of (blank)).
Here is his house. Isn’t it very (blank)!
One morning Mr (blank) woke up, and (blank)ed his (blank). Then he had his (blank) breakfast.
Then Mr (blank) went into town, to have very (blank) conversations with the shopkeepers. Silly Mr (blank)!
And so on. And on. For many weary pages. You get the idea.
There is one basic rule for Mr Men – and trust me, it is really basic. It is this: the title character must have only ONE SINGLE character trait. If it is a nice trait, he’ll still have it at the end and we’ll all feel heartened for the emotional rollercoaster of a ride that we – the readers – have experienced. If it’s a bad one, then something Highly Witty (for a four-year-old) will happen to him to reverse it … and we’ll all feel heartened again. However, he won’t change his name, and will then presumably spend the rest of his existence living in a state of permanent and futile contradiction, until such time as he tops himself. They never dwell on this in the books; though they would if I wrote ’em.
Which reminds me of this rather fabulous cartoon strip (clicky to make biggy):
A footnote to my rant
In the interests of parity, I feel I should point out that although I will be a very happy man on the day I burn my children’s collection of Mr Men books, there is a notable exception to the franchise. The Mr Men Show (currently showing on Channel 5 on weekday mornings) is nothing short of awesome. Mr Rude is French. Mr Messy is a scouser. And the show is all about all the characters interacting together, rather than just one episode about a single, paper-thin individual. It is definitely one of the best children’s TV shows you’re likely to watch before you take the kids to school.