French Children’s Books

 A friend of mine sent me this link to an article published in the Guardian on Terrifying French Children’s Books.

I’m torn in choosing a favorite among La Visite de petite mort (Death visits a little girl. He kills her), Le Voleur de Lily (The Thief of Lily – Lily is kidnapped), or Le Jour où Papa a tué sa vielle tante (The Day Daddy killed His Old Aunt – true crime for 7-year-olds).

French children’s books, like French movies, aren’t big on the whole “and they lived happily ever after forever and nothing bad ever happened again and everyone was delighted for always” endings. Moral messages don’t seem to be present in many books, either.

We are amassing a collection of French children’s books in our home. There’s one collection of pop up books that particularly caught my eye for their great art and classic stories, so I ordered several of them from Amazon.fr. Then I read them. Starting with Le petit poucet. Petit Poucet (Little Thumb) is the youngest of seven children. His parents run out of food and decide to abandon their children in the forest. Petit Poucet leads his siblings back to their home, so their parents take them out and abandon them, again. Successfully, this time. The children are captured by ogres who plan to make a fine meal of them, but Petit Poucet tricks the ogre into eating his own children instead. Woo hoo! Happy ending!

That book is no longer in our house. I can just hear my daughter every time we go hiking: “Mommy! (sob, sob) Are you going to leave us here so the ogres can eat us?”

There’s the classic: Alouette, gentille alouette. How many people actually know what the words are, other than the chorus? It’s about plucking all the feathers from the bird, then dismembering it. Slowly. While singing an upbeat tune. But the pictures are so pretty:

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Il était un petit navire: There was a little boat. The sailors run out of food and draw straws to decide which crew member will be dinner.

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A little boy draws the short straw and as the men discuss how to cook him and what sauce to use, he prays to the Virgin Mary to save him.

We're coming for you, little boy, with our sharp shiny knives!

We’re coming for you, little boy, with our sharp shiny knives!

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Happy ending! She does. In our version, anyway. Not so much in the traditional tale.

This pop up picture causes my poor son to burst into tears, every time. Le chat botté (Puss in Boots) is pretty freaky here:

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Granted, plenty of our nursery rhymes, songs, (Ring Around the Rosie, anyone?) and old fairy tales aren’t exactly geared for the modern child. But so many have been Disneyfied that we’ve become accustomed to happy endings, justice being served, and a palatable moral message. Though I still have huge issues with the Little Mermaid. She gives up her home, family, fins, and voice for a man? Ugh. Yes, honey, but the prince is so handsome!

Many of our most familiar fairy tales were first penned by Charles Perrault, a Frenchman who lived and wrote in the 17th century and who is known as the initiator of the literary fairy tale. Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard, and my favorite: Le Petit Poucet… all come from Perrault. He called his collection: Tales of Mother Goose. Château de Breteuil, just outside of Paris, has plays and displays all featuring the tales of Charles Perrault, plus beautiful gardens to wander through.

Beauty and the Beast, or La Belle et La Bête, was written by frenchwoman Jeanne Marie LePrince de Beaumont (the version as we best know it).

We have found several books that we enjoy. I love this little book, especially the illustrations, that I found on our last visit to France: La Fourmi voyageuse: The adventurous ant. It’s about a hardworking ant who is persuaded by a snail to leave his work and explore the world – “there’s hundreds of you working. No one will notice if you are absent for a moment!” The ant decides to ditch work and explore and he has a wonderful adventure and makes new friends:

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When he returns home, he tells the other ants of his adventures. The queen decides to give each ant some free time so they can all explore the forest, too. Hmmm. Sewing the seeds of, oh dear, dare I say the icky word, socialism? Pretty soon those ants will be expecting eight weeks vacation and free health care.

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The Petit ours brun series and T’choupi, both of which are also cartoons that are easily found on You Tube, are favorites.

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Babar is also one of my daughter’s favorites, though Babar’s mother is killed by a hunter (much like Bambi). We skip over that part for now.

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Misbehaving Mini-Loup (little wolf) is always wreaking havoc:

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But he usually pays for it:

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Then there’s Bécassine, the French version of one of my English favorites growing up: Amelia Bedelia:

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I look forward to visiting bookstores next time we’re in France. Any suggestions out there for children’s books we should read?

35 thoughts on “French Children’s Books

  1. As a child I was fond of “Le Rat des villes et le rat des champs” de Bernadette and liked “Émilie” by Domitille de Pressensé a lot. Recently I read “La Grande fabrique des mots” by Agnès de Lestrade. It takes place in a country where only rich people can buy words in order to speak. 2 boys (one poor, one rich) are in love with Marie, which one will get her heart? 🙂

  2. Living in Paris, the children’s book choices always surprise me as well! We bought a little animal book that is clearly meant for toddlers (2-3 words, no sentence, on each page) and it has snakes going after eggs, scorpions poisoning crickets and crocodiles slithering with gleaming teeth… A little scary, in my opinion! We focus on the gorilla and the gazelle! Your post is dead-on, thanks! Thiswanderingife.com if you’d like to check us out. 🙂

  3. I liked Madeline and Babar when I was little. I liked to imagine myself romantically orphaned, and nonetheless successfully navigating the world and having adventures.

  4. Love the Petit Poucet ogre story – you had me laughing out loud. So true. Obviously, I suggest you check out the many on my store, most of which I chose because either Zach loved them or friends of mine recommended them. Because I will do almost anything to get Zach to speak/listen/read French, I am trying to get books that mirror his English interests, which for some time have been superheroes and all types of tough and weapon-wielding characters (there you have the American version of scary children’s books!)

  5. I will definitely check out your store. Ironically, I hadn’t thought of how scary weapon-wielding characters are. How very American of me! But you are right – I can’t even see a gun without my knees going to jello, so weapons of any kind in a children’s book = scary.

  6. My kids who are of mixed nationality have read T’Choupi and Petit Ours Brun as well great for the little ones. Another one I love and is rather innocent is Sam Sam – you can see clips on their website but they also have short story books – Great for kids! I must credit my lovely sisters for shipping french kids books to Australia! As they get older Boule & Bill is great a cartoon book series – a little boy who has adventures with his dog (but for the more advanced French level)
    Happy reading everyone!

  7. For little ones (2-3) I have been a big fan of the Caillou series, originally from Quebec and not scary at all. They so adorably capture that age. For example, in one book Caillou has a nightmare. He cries and Mommy comes to cuddle him. He likes the warm cuddles and thinks Mommy smells good. He realizes that if he has a nightmare every night, he gets cuddles every night. One night instead of Mommy coming Daddy comes, and says that his teddy bear is scared and really would like some cuddles and then leaves. Caillou cries for a while, and then realizes that his bear is warm and smells good like Mommy, and everyone in the house sleeps. So NOT French in a way that this still-adjusting-to-French-books mommy really appreciates! My favorite tragic children’s book in French is the classic Le Petit Prince. Nelson heard in once in my womb and once since he’s been on the outside. I also got a Barbapapa dictionary from a friend which seems really creative and fun.

    I was thinking about this same thing the other day, and I realized that my experience of some of these scary books when I was a kid is so different from how I think about them now. For example, as a kid it NEVER occurred to me that the Little Prince might have been interested in anything other than space travel when talking to the snake about how fast the poison would kill him. I think children just accept the world they are given, and what is more important is being there with them to talk it through and make them question the good and bad in any reality and any culture.

    • Great suggestions and observations. I view the fairy tales so differently now than I did as a child. It’s true that children are much more resilient than we give them credit for. Bambi’s mother dying, a stepmother intent on killing (Snow White) or abusing (Cinderella), Panthers hunting boys (Jungle Book)…. I don’t remember being traumatized by these as a child.

  8. I found you because you commented on World Moms Blog today — and I’m so glad you did! I’m in the US raising my children bilingual in English and French. They love Ours Brun, & Mini-Loup. Have you heard of Camille? They are a series about a giraffe for younger kids. “Camille A Des Belles Bottes.”

    My 6 year old enjoys Barbapapa. I must look into this dictionary that was mentioned! The Zoe & Theo series was also popular with my girls. Although my 6 year old has grown out of it.

    Dr. Seuss translated in French has also been a hit — “Les Oeufs Verts Au Jambon.”

    I did not know that Amelia Bedilia was Bécassine in French. I am going to look for those next!

    Also — we subscribe to Wakou — a nature magazine in French for kids. That is a hit, too!

    Jen Burden 🙂

    P.S. Thank you for putting us on your blog roll!

    • Glad I found you, too! You have a great blog.

      I should clarify – Bécassine is an Amelia Bedelia type of character but not a direct translation. She’s a maid, much like Amelia, and quite clumsy/goofy 🙂

  9. I just discovered your blog via multicultural blogs … OMG I LOOOOVE it! you make me laugh because I can totally relate to what you’re talking about– I’m married to a French guy too!! We live in a Spanish/French home and its quite fun! Am following you on FB, can’t wait to read more!!

  10. Pingback: French Children’s Books | alfrog's Blog

  11. ou made me laugh with the Petit Poucet reference. There is actually a cool version (but not for the faint of heart) that was written a few years back as his “diary” It is for older kids, but, yes, overall, pretty harsh from our point of view. We got it at the library in France. It has very interesting drawings and sarcastic humor. My boys are now almost 8 and 11. We have loved T’Choupi, Trotro (he is in the US in English on Netflix but kind of annoying in English), Yakari (bande dessinées – BD – for 5 – 10 year old set), Asterix, We also like Rita et Machin and various BD for kids. Great post – thanks! I think all anglophones raising their kids to speak French have this reaction at one time or another (like I did too).

  12. I love your blog! I am French…yeah nobody is perfect like I always say when asked what nationality I am, my husband is American. I remember loving the Schroumpfs, Barbapapa, Trotro was a big hit at home like Tchoupi, previously mentionned.
    Boule et Bill was awesome too. Check out la serie de Martine. Keep writing it is hilarious to read you and soooo true!

  13. Great post! Between your suggestions and the comments I think I’ve got a lot of good leads next time I go shopping!

  14. One French children’s book that I (and my son) have really enjoyed is, Petit Dragon est Maladroit by Jann Walcker and Eric Puybaret. It’s about a little dragon who keeps on trying to help people but never quite gets it right. No happy ending like you’d have in an American book (i was a little surprised the first time I read it!) but more like a you’ll get them next time little dragon. It’s also a touch and feel book so little ones can appreciate the textures on the pages as well.

  15. Very funny post. I was raised on a French Island & now live in Hawaii. Not easy to find books of the caliber of Dr Seuss’ in French.
    So far my favorites are from Pierre Probst
    Caroline series & Pouf et Noiraud
    Beautiful illustrations & the stories are well written. Lots of humor.
    The collection Bonhomme de Hachette Monsieur/Madame series is interesting.
    La veritable histoire du marchand de sable by marie Anne Boucher
    Le petit lapin bleu fete sa maman editions Emma

    • Thank you! We love the Caroline series, too, with her friends. Thank you for the other favorites – I look forward to checking those out. Enjoy Hawaii – I’m jealous as I sit here trying to thaw my toes from being in the snow this morning!

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