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Picture Books… À la Française!

With one foot still planted in Paris (and a typing hand newly transplanted to New York!),  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately… about childrens’ literature in general and about French picture books in particular. Vive la différence!

Where the Wild Books Are…

It’s true, from an American perspective, French literature for children may seem to verge on the wild, if not radical. And it most likely does! Much of it can be seen as darker, as more contentious and more daring in an extreme Sendakian-like way.

The picture books given to French children have a reputation for being uncompromisingly scary – further proof that the French do not coddle ‘les enfants’, even at story time! While it’s true that the French embrace topics and styles that more timid Anglophone picture book publishers would reject, right now France is producing some of the finest books for children in the world.

Mike Shuttleworth

‘Sense and Sensibility’

Illustration of a lion in a french cafe, from Breatrice Alemagna's picture book "Un Lion à Paris"

“Un Lion à Paris” by Beatrice Alemagna

It’s sure that there are differences between American and French sensibilities when it comes to tone and perspective. C’est tout naturel! While it seems that Americans start their day with spoonfuls of optimism, the French are more tempted by a healthy dose of skepticism… (all stereotypes aside)!

And so it follows, that while a character from an American picture book might be rolling up his sleeves to hammer out a well-deserved happy ending, he would not, if picked up and placed in a French ‘album’, necessarily have that satisfaction. For me, both scenarios have their value, each examining diverse aspects of the human experience.

Maybe author Pamela Druckerman describes it better when contrasting the children’s literature on each side of the Atlantic. In American picture books  “… every problem seems to have a solution and prosperity is just around the corner”, whereas in its French counterpart, that same problem may be pinned down, all the while knowing that the solution may not hold for very long. It seems that life, and solutions to its complexity, are… well… complicated!

And French inclusion of what may be considered in the anglophone world as taboo subjects* mirrors a wider, almost ‘cultured’ confidence in children and in their ability to navigate a less-than-perfect world. Sophisticated French kidlit, often seasoned with the saucy and the satirical, is marketed even to the tiniest, “in the conviction that such young children are as capable and worthy of witty and demanding books as any adult reader.” [Marie Derrien]

Open endings? It is apparently, from the French point-of-view, no problem! Children are given the intellectual challenge of working stuff out for themselves. It’s a pretty inquiry-based approach and inquiry itself “means living in the soup, living in that uncomfortable space where we don’t know the answer.” [Ian Quillen/Mindshift KQED]

Ambitious French narratives and ambiguous visual codes? Well, it appears that kids are really good at exploring between-the-lines, or what writer Shane Parrish describes as ‘grey thinking‘. Call it philosophy on training wheels!

Remarkably, all the research confirms this. The young seem to be more resilient than some gatekeepers of their literature would have it. Empirical studies in reader-response theory and in developmental psychology reveal their “astounding capacity to fathom even subliminal intents […] and their astonishing facilities to interact with such a demanding art form as the picture book.” In saying this, specialist Dr. Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer bestows objectivity on my otherwise very singular observation: that my own kids, typical little French connoisseurs of French ‘pain’, pictures and prose, seem, (at least in appearance!), to have grown to be well-balanced and pretty decent critical thinkers!

A Tale of Two Cultures

It made me laugh when international author and researcher Clementine Beauvais described vacillating between anglophone and French markets as ‘a bit of a schizophrenic exercise’. Ha! How very true that must be! It’s like continually shifting your weight from side to side, from a certain ‘literariness’ to a crucial ‘commercialness’, depending on where you’re standing! In her article about publishing children’s books in France and the UK and, by maybe arm’s length extension, the US, she goes on to say that her French books, for the most part, are unpublishable in the anglophone world and that French kidlit in general is “much more racy, much more politically committed, much more uncomfortable.”

But maybe, just maybe, reading outside of what is, when push comes to shove, a culturally-created comfort zone is precisely the point.

Sometimes reading matters because it makes us uncomfortable. Stories have the power to challenge our opinions and help us redefine our moral compass, to push us to recognize experiences that are not our own, and to push us to recognize what we need and want to change about our lives and our world.

– Educator and blogger Annie Thoms

Yet another kind of discomfort can be ‘illustrated’, as aesthetic sensibilities also straddle the cultural divide. Although some post-modern picture book pages in the U.S. feature high concept design and sophisticated art à la française, French picture book illustrations and their covers, “can get away with more subtlety than can American, which tend to have bold images that are more ‘in your face’.”[Emmanuelle Marie, Groupe Bayard]

Illustration of a lion in a french cafe, from Breatrice Alemagna's picture book "Un Lion à Paris"

“Un Lion à Paris” by Beatrice Alemagna

And what is more, often lurking beneath that French subtle cover is the passé simple, an exclusively literary language tense, offered up even to the youngest. That is not pretentious or high-brow culture. That is quite simply… French! Culture oozes everywhere. With an enviable intellectual tradition, “there is a feeling in France that the need for culture is not an add-on to your life. It’s part of your life.” [Beverly Horowitz, VP/Publisher Bantam Delacorte]

Well, the arts, culture, and creativity in general are heavily subsidized in France. Even books themselves are not considered as just another commodity, but as a precious natural resource, an “essential good, along with electricity, bread and water.”

Et Les Enfants?

So what about what kids, themselves, want?

Kümmerling-Meibauer highlights the rare example of what happens when kids are actually asked what they want from a picture book. The result: Un Bateau dans le Ciel (A Sailing Boat in the Sky), first published in French, in 2000. It was created by the eloquent and beautifully anarchic Quentin Blake with the suggestions of 1,800 children from all over Europe, but particularly of schoolchildren in France. With no gatekeeper to an idyllic world, their door flung wide open to explore deep and difficult themes, like prejudice, pollution, child slavery and war.

So, just as recent Youth Materials Collections Specialist for the New York Public Library Elizabeth Bird emphasizes, it is really important for gatekeepers to step back, “to set aside whatever discomfort they, themselves, might experience when it comes to a book with foreign sensibilities. Chances are, children themselves don’t yet have such internalized reactions to the foreign – maybe because everything is !”

*Death: La Visite de Petite Mort by Kitty Crowther / War: Akim court by Claude Dubois / Existentialism: La Grande Question by Wolf Erlbruch for the French publisher Etre.

Delving Deeper:

  • On the challenging and changing world of picture books in the English-speaking world and on those that are currently opening up hard conversations, superb posts that ‘unpack the power of picture books’ by Sandy Brehl
  • On refuting the claim that there is a dearth of good French Children’s Literature, an excellent article by Clementine Beauvais
  • On Where the Wild Books Are: Celebrating Foreign Picture Books by Matia Burnett
  • On Radical Trends in French Picture Books, Project Muse, Marie Derrien
  • On European Picture Books in the New Millineum: Word & Image, a journal of Verbal/Visual Inquiry,  Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer
  • On the French Connection: Children’s Books in Translation By Diane Roback

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