Elizabeth Wein

26th October 2012 at 01:00
An unassuming heroine of wartime inspired the children's author to take on the French language

I had taken a couple of years of French at junior high and I decided to continue with it at Harrisburg Academy (Pennsylvania). Annette Berman was not a very good teacher - she really wasn't. She was terrible at maintaining discipline. I remember I hit some kid on the head with a book because they gave her a hard time.

We were the senior French class and the advanced class. She would buckle down and get us going when we had something we were supposed to be aiming for, but it was all a bit haphazard and I think she got lucky with my group because we were interested. And certainly we were interested enough in her stories that we would listen and that was a good way of learning the language.

The thing that really blew our minds as students was that she had been in the French resistance. She was French, had married an American soldier and moved to Harrisburg in 1945. She was this kind of short, not overweight, but curvy and very sweet woman. We called her cute and felt motherly towards her. She was probably in her fifties when she was teaching us and so unassuming.

We all lived in the same neighbourhood where along the banks of the River Susquehanna there was a long, flat cycle path. She would say she wasn't very good at riding her bicycle and if someone stepped in front of her she would ring her bell, and if they didn't move she would fall off. This contrasted with our knowledge that this woman used to deliver dynamite hidden under a bunch of carrots in her bicycle basket. It was a battle to reconcile the sweet lady we knew and this fiery teenager.

Madame Berman was Jewish and lived in Paris. I remember her saying "we would never throw out an apple core", because as Jews in hiding they had no access to food and were dependent on people sharing with them. To this day I eat the entire apple.

Verity (Ms Wein's novel Code Name Verity) is set in France during the Second World War and the resistance is there in the background, but I consciously kept her out of it. I really did not want to use anything that could be connected back to her life. Her story is a private story and her children may want to tell it at some point. But while nothing is based on her, the book was certainly influenced by her.

We were her best French class - she told me this in later life - and she entered us in a bunch of regional contests. One in particular was at the local university and they would not let us come back the third year, because we kept winning. Harrisburg Academy was a private school. I don't think it followed a set curriculum, so we did a lot of talking in class and she got us reading the books that had been her favourites as a child.

I would say she has been one of my supporters all along. When my first book was published in 1993, it was translated into French and I sent her a copy, and in 2006 I brought my children to meet her. Then in 2008, I was asked back to speak by my high school. They asked if there were any former teachers I would like to invite so, of course, I named Madame Berman. But she died that spring, a couple of months before.

Elizabeth Wein's book Code Name Verity (Electric Monkey) is shortlisted in the Older Readers (12-16 years) category of the 2012 Scottish Children's Book Awards. Find out how to get your class involved in voting for their favourite books, see www.scottishbooktrust.com. She was talking to Emma Seith.

Personal profile

Born: New York, 1964

Education: two primary schools in UK, then two in Jamaica and two in the US; Central Dauphin East Junior High and Harrisburg Academy, both Pennsylvania; Yale University, Connecticut; University of Pennsylvania

Career: children's author.

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