After inspiring his dad to create the Mr Men series, Adam Hargreaves took over the iconic books when his father died at a tragically young age, writes Esther McCarthy
EVERY parent has experienced it — that awkward question from a curious child that leaves them stumped for a plausible answer. In the case of a young Adam Hargreaves, however, it was the question that fired his father’s imagination, and changed the course of children’s fiction-book history.
After asking his father, Roger, “What does a tickle look like?”, Roger set about creating a character called Mr Tickle. It was 1971, and for the entrepreneur who was looking to escape the commute to London, where he worked as an advertising copywriter, it was the beginning of the Mr Men and Little Miss series.
It remains a publishing phenomenon — more than 85 million copies have been sold worldwide in dozens of different languages. In a survey of the best-selling authors of the decade in 2009, Hargreaves came second only to JK Rowling and ahead of John Grisham and Dan Brown.
“I would have been about four when I asked dad: ‘What does a tickle look like?’ but it’s gone down in history,” says Hargreaves, who has taken over his father’s legacy as the series author and illustrator. “I don’t remember it, but it was one of those impossible questions that children pose to their parents, like: ‘Why is the sky blue?’
“He worked in London as a copywriter in advertising, so he was an ideas man and had an ambition to be a strip cartoonist. My question sparked off the Mr Men idea. It took him a while to translate that into an actual storybook.
“I remember him going off to this little corner of the garage that he’d put together as his office. And he used to draw all weekend.
“It took a certain amount of persistence and luck, in a way, to get himself published. He created a mocked-up book of the Mr Tickles story and illustrations, and sent that off to all the main publishers and got turned down by all of them.”
It was a chance meeting with a printer friend — who had no experience in book publishing — that proved to be the breakthrough.
“He met a friend of his, Jack Thurman, who he knew through advertising who is a printer, they got chatting, my dad mentioned Mr Men and Jack said: ‘Well, if you write them I’ll publish them’.
“It took off quickly given that it was a start-up company. I know that within three years they’d sold a million books. Particularly in the 1970s, that was a quick success. Then the BBC got interested in making the first TV series, and that’s when it really hit.”
We meet in Dublin department store Arnotts, where the writer and illustrator is preparing to meet hundreds of Irish Mr Men and Little Miss fans. A pop-up personalisation station means customers can personalise mugs, art prints and mobile phone covers up to Christmas.
While Adam says that home life remained the same, there were changes that success brings. “My dad was doing reasonably well anyway so it wasn’t a rags to riches story. But it did change our lives. We were suddenly living in a bigger house but we still lived in the same village. Instead of the Sussex coast we were going on holidays to Portugal.”
But misfortune was to beset Hargreaves and his family at the peak of his success. He died suddenly, leaving his bereaved family wondering what, among other things, to do with the gift to children everywhere he had created.
“He tragically died very young, he was only 53,” says Adam. “And it happened very suddenly — he had a series of strokes over the course of one day, and was dead by the afternoon. It threw all of us into a terrible spin at the time. I guess none of us even considered the prospect of who might take over. I think I would have been the last one he expected to get involved. My brother followed my dad more in the route of copywriting, and he liked cartoons whereas I liked drawing more realistic things.
“I guess in a way I just never imagined drawing the Mr Men. Even when I first took over working in the company it was more about helping my mum out on the business side of things. I’d worked in farming up to then so I had absolutely no experience. I think my naivety and ignorance was a help in a way because I didn’t realise how big a thing I was stepping into.
“The creative side evolved over time. I’ve always drawn, I did inherit that from my dad.”
Creatively, he has contributed greatly to the series with new stories and occasionally new characters — Mr Adventure came to life this year to mark the brand’s 45th anniversary. But Adam says that his goal has always been to celebrate his father’s work. Though the company was sold in 2004, he still writes and illustrates all the books. But it’s his father’s name that is proudly displayed on the cover.
“I’ve always felt very much that it should be my dad’s name on the front covers, even on the ones that I write. I’ve never felt it was right, in a way, to have my name on the front cover. It’s his legacy.”
The sale has also given him time to explore another creative outlets. He has had much success as an artist, his landscape work in oil on canvas being widely praised, and is currently preparing his next exhibition.
“It was an ambition I’d always had but Mr Men took over and I never had time to do it. When we sold the company in 2004, that for me was a private reason, a small part of selling meant I could then pursue the fine arts. I didn’t know if I could paint particularly well or not, but I always had an ambition to try, there was always something in me that wanted to paint landscapes, in particular.”
He sometimes spends his mornings painting landscapes and his afternoons drawing Mr Men or Little Miss characters, but loves the contrasts both forms bring.
His favourite characters are Mr Bump, who is the most fun to draw, and Mr Silly, because it reminds him of his father. Does his father’s personality lives on in his work?
“Very much so. The Mr Men encapsulate his sense of humour, a sort of a daft silliness that is a deep vein that runs through the stories of all the characters.
“That was very much my dad, he had a terrific sense of humour and liked a practical joke. He was a big fan of puns. April Fool’s Day was a big event in our house.
“It’s the essence of my dad’s idea that I think really works,” he says of the characters’ enduring appeal. “It’s personifying human characteristic emotion and that’s just a touchstone for everybody. They recognise little bits of themselves, or their friends, or their kids in each of the characters.”
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