It was one of those questions that would leave most parents scratching their heads. “What does a tickle look like?”
That was the query posed by eight-year-old Adam to his dad, Roger Hargreaves.
The senior Hargreaves – with a flair for art and working in advertising at the time – immediately grabbed a pen and drew an orange character with a blue hat and very long arms, inadvertently creating the very first member of the Mr. Men series: Mr. Tickle!
The Mr. Tickle book would go on to sell one million copies in just three years. Fifty years on, Hargreaves’ books have sold over 250 million copies worldwide and are so popular, one book sells every 2.5 seconds somewhere in the world.
When Roger passed away suddenly in 1988, Adam took over the mantle – continuing to create and draw the Mr. Men Little Miss books. Having inherited his dad’s artistic flair, he has created Little Miss characters for The Spice Girls; was commissioned in 2012 by fashion designer Stella McCartney to create Little Miss Stella for a runway show; and has also delivered a range of books based on all 13 versions of Doctor Who.
Today, Japanese firm Sanrio owns the Mr. Men Little Miss brand, with Adam remaining on as author and illustrator, helping them find new avenues to keep the characters relevant to modern culture and today’s kids.
This year, the brand is celebrating its 50th anniversary and the latest two characters in the line-up are Mr. Calm and Little Miss Brave, announced recently following a global public vote.
“Having Mr. Calm and Little Miss Brave join our much-loved family of characters reflects the current consumer mood and the world we’re living in,” says Sanrio Licensing Director, Alastair McHarrie, referring to the global pandemic we’re all living through.
The new characters join over 90 Mr. Men Little Miss characters, and will be turned into classic books, available in September 2021.
“Admittedly, Mr. Calm is one of my favourites, so I’m delighted to be able to share this story with the public later this year. It’s amazing to see people are still connecting to the books after 50 years, and here’s to Mr. Calm and Little Miss Brave leading the way in shaping the brands personality for the next 50!” Adam says.
For Adam, he still can’t believe that such a simple question he asked as a young boy has gone on to evolve into a global empire that remains just as popular today.
“It was a moment of genius on my Dad’s part because there are loads of children’s characters that are personifications of toys or trains, but not emotions. Each character in the Mr. Men Little Miss series personifies a part of human nature, so we recognise ourselves in them and have an automatic affinity with them. That’s the answer to their longevity and success.”
A publisher thought so, too, and in 1971 Mr. Tickle went on sale, alongside Mr. Greedy, Mr. Happy, Mr. Nosey, Mr. Sneeze and Mr. Bump. Costing only 15p each at the time, the stories were an instant success and spawned a BBC series, narrated by Dad’s Army actor Arthur Lowe.
Two years after the first’s books release, Roger was able to quit his day job to work on his publishing empire full-time. In 1981, he created 13 Little Miss books, which were also turned into television series, narrated by British actress Pauline Collins and her husband, actor John Alderton.
Sadly, Roger’s career was cut short when he died unexpectedly at the age of 53 in 1988. Adam was only 25 at the time and had chosen a completely different career path and was working as a dairy farmer.
“When Dad died, I’d gotten to a crossroads with my love of farming, but I had no inclination to be involved in the Mr. Men business creatively.”
Adam, however, was unhappy with the quality of the artwork as commercial opportunities for the brand came in, so he grabbed his father’s trademark Magic Markers and attempted to emulate his style – something that took years and years of practice.
“I went through an enormous learning curve and came to a much greater appreciation of what my father created,” he says.
Now, he likes drawing Mr. Bump the best, but loves the story of Mr. Silly.
To date, the books have been sold in 17 languages worldwide since 1971, with the top-selling books in Australia in 2020 being Little Miss Sunshine and Little Miss Hug.
“I don’t think Dad could ever have envisaged that Mr. Men Little Miss would still be around 50 years later. I often say that I think he’d be tickled pick by it.”
To find out more about Mr. Men Little Miss, or to pre-order copies of the new Mr Calm and Little Miss Brave books ahead of their September release, visit mrmen.com.