Children’s author Francesca Simon, creator of the Horrid Henry series, talks to Eve Middleton about her Parisian childhood, and what France means to her now
Can you tell us more about the 18 months you spent in France as a child? We lived in Paris on Avenue Charles Floquet in the 7th arrondissement, where my dad was writing a film. We were enrolled in the local school where I was put down a year so I could learn French. It was a very strict, old-fashioned school. We wore these blue tabliers and had to line up outside the class. That was an abiding and terrible memory. As regards learning French, I remember being in class not understanding anything and feeling sick, and then I remember one day the teacher was talking about papillons – and I suddenly realised I understood everything she was saying. I liked the school, it was tough though. I kept a diary and wrote about how many blots I’d made in my book, and how we had bon points, and mauvais points. I did have beautiful handwriting though, with my pen dipped in the inkwell.
What does your time in France mean to you?
It has very much shaped me. I don’t think it’s an accident that I feel very comfortable in Europe, certainly for an American, as most Americans are quite isolated. It was wonderful to have that experience of a different culture and to come back to the US aged almost nine and be fluent in another language and be very comfortable in another culture. The other kids in my apartment building were at the American school and didn’t speak French anywhere near as well as I did. Essentially they remained Americans in Paris, whereas I became very French. By the end, you probably couldn’t tell that I wasn’t French.
Do you often go back to France?
Yes, I go to Paris a lot – the Eurostar is one of the world’s great inventions. I love being in Paris, because when I was a student at Yale my senior thesis was on medieval fountains (I specialised in French and English art and literature) and so I had a grant to look at manuscripts, a lot of which were in the Bibliothèque Nationale. When I’m in Paris I always stay on the Île Saint-Louis, because when I was a student I would go there to admire the beautiful 17th-century three-star hotels. One of them was the Hôtel des Deux-Îles, so it’s where I always stay, because at the time I never believed I would one day be able to. It’s not particularly expensive, but it symbolises for me the most wonderful place in the world to stay in Paris.
What is it that resonates with you about France?
I love the art, I love the literature, I love the culture of France. I love the emphasis on good food, on having a coffee, on sitting and chatting, and the way that you’re surrounded by beautiful things. I enjoy speaking French and I feel very at home there, it’s a second home for me.
Are there any specific French writers that you admire?
I like Jean Cocteau, and I love Molière and the novels of Balzac. I also like Flaubert and Stendhal. I like all the classics, but the playwright Racine is probably my favourite. I haven’t been to the Comédie Française though – it’s honteuse that I haven’t!
Do you have any addresses that you would like to share with our readers?
There are four that I really like. For a drink, there is nowhere better than Restaurant Le Georges on top of the Pompidou Centre, because you get this panoramic view of Paris; at sundown it’s extraordinary. For food, I have three addresses, starting with a fabulous place in Paris called Chez Denise (5 Rue des Prouvaires, 75001). You eat at big trestle tables where they sit you with other people. It’s so convivial and the portions of food are massive. When I went there, the two women sitting over from us invited us to their flat the next day to have champagne and canapés. In Nice, Le Bistrot d’Antoine (27 Rue de la Préfecture) is a classic French bistrot with terrific food at reasonable prices. My final favourite is La Mère Germaine in Villefranche-sur-Mer (9 Quai de l’Amiral Courbet), which is right on the seafront and is a holiday in itself.
Do you cook French food at home in London?
Yes, I do. I have Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Raymond Blanc’s books, because he is a friend. I do mostly seafood because I live with two vegetarians and they eat fish. I don’t do the French meat thing, although I have a very good recipe for lamb gigot with mustard.
Do You Speak English, Moon? by Francesca Simon and the illustrator Ben Cort, is published by Orion Children’s Books, priced £9.99.