My best teacher - Francesca Simon

2nd September 2011 at 01:00
An itinerant childhood meant the Horrid Henry creator always felt a bit different. But she found sanctuary with a ferocious English teacher

I was quite argumentative at home, but at school I was a really good student. I enjoyed learning; I loved English and reading. In fact, my life basically centered around giving myself maximum reading time. I used to read about six hours a day. I would come home from school and automatically do my homework so I had the rest of the time free.

I went to many schools. We moved around a lot - New York, California, London, France, then back to America. I was seven and eight when I went to school in London and Paris and I became aware that there was more than one way of doing something.

When I arrived at Webster Elementary School in Malibu, I caused a bit of a sensation because I shook hands with people. I was considered a little odd but rather ferocious. People didn't really tease me. They tried but I was hard to tease because I'm pretty sharp and I wasn't so odd that I looked like a victim. I did have a sort of European way with me.

Another effect was that moving around always made me think that friendship was temporary. But the lasting affect was that I never learnt to print. In France I had learnt to write with a pen dipped in an inkwell, so I came back to America at eight with this very beautiful, precise handwriting. They tried to make me write on big pieces of paper but I couldn't make these huge letters that weren't connected.

At 15, I had an English teacher at Palisades ("Pali") Junior High School called Jean O'Brien. She was so intelligent, so challenging, very inspiring. She was sort of unnerving because she was a very large woman with iron-grey hair, cut very severely. She had complete control. But she was also unbelievably perceptive. She would walk around the class getting a feel for people and one of the first things she did was give all of us - individually - a different book to read that she thought we would find interesting and that she was sure we had never heard of. I read the autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, a muckraking journalist, which I loved. She had a rather wicked sense of humour, which I also liked.

She always had lunch in her classroom and a whole number of us would come in and have lunch with her. It was a little bit of a sanctuary and I appreciated the refuge. It was never really discussed but her door was always open. I liked the fact that even though she was so ferocious, we still had that time with her.

She recognised that I was smart, but odd for the school, and encouraged me in my reading and in my efforts to make sense of my place in the world. I did maintain a level of contact with her afterwards and she wrote one of my recommendations for Yale.

I still see Professor Eric Stanley, who taught me at Yale (I did medieval studies). He is a world-renowned expert in Anglo-Saxon language and literature. He had come from Oxford University and arrived at Yale in a three-piece suit, thick glasses, tall, upright. He is fabulous, unbelievably learned and so much fun. One of the things that's so great about him - considering he is one of the most eminent scholars in the world - is that he absolutely adores undergraduates; he really loves teaching.

He insists I call him Eric, which still feels very transgressive. He's 87 now but he's exactly how he always was.

He also taught me later at Oxford. I was pretty much failing and he let me sit in on all his graduate classes to get me through. He's terribly blunt. His assessment of me was that I was a good student, but not brilliant.

Francesca Simon's latest Horrid Henry book, 'Horrid Henry and the Zombie Vampire' (Orion), was published on 1 September. A new novel, 'The Sleeping Army' (Profile), is published in October. The author is one of the judges of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the shortlist for which will be announced on 12 September. 'Horrid Henry: The Movie' is out now. Francesca Simon was talking to Anne Joseph.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today