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?