Awkward French Children's Books

by Eric
I have read a lot of French children's books this year.  Early on, we paid a few euros to get a library card downtown, which is about a 20 minute walk away from the school, and we go there every couple weeks.  It's a good outing for the kids, they love to read, and it's good language practice for me.

The language is pretty simple, and I've got pictures to help me!  (Though interestingly, French has a unique verb tense reserved for written narratives, so the verbs are always a bit different from what we learn in class.)  

Every society has a culture to its children's literature (if it produces any), and it's one thing to recognize that, but it's another to not feel weirded-out when you experience the kid's books of another culture.  I mean, I was weaned on the stories of my culture, and so those values are pretty deeply ingrained.

Some French kid's books are awesome, and some are down right beautiful (Le Petit Prince, for example).  However, some are rather strange, and I thought I'd share a few of the categories of "strange".

1.  Animal "Violence".  If there is an animal in a story, then someone is going to die.  American books are largely influenced by Disney and company, where such things are considered too "harsh" for kids, so the chicken in the pasta dish needs to be mentally separated from the chicken in "The Little Red Hen".  For the French, if the protagonist is a chicken, he may end the story by being a yummy dinner.  Even more frequently, the animals eat each other.  In Et pourquoi? Little Red Riding Hood tortures the wolf by repeatedly asking "Pourquoi?" ("why?") until he eats her whole, and then she continues her terrible interrogations from inside his belly.  The story ends by the wolf having had enough, and so he takes a knife and slices his belly open.  He dies, and Red Riding Hood walks out smug and unharmed.  This example is a bit mild, since I never checked out the more violent ones, so I can't remember the titles.

2.  Nudity.  It may in fact be true that, as an American, I'm a bit prudish.  Yet there you have it, so it's a bit weird for me to see kid's cartoons with full frontal nudity.  I quite like the Emile series of  books as seen below.  However, this one is a bit weird.  Emile decides that he has become invisible, and so he can't figure out how his mom can still see him.  Then, epiphany!  It's his clothes!  So, he takes them off, so he can be truly invisible.  The book ends with him walking into the living room to be surprised by a female friend that has come to pay a visit.  Naked Emile, feeling no need to cross his legs, sits down on the couch next to her, relieved that he's invisible, because otherwise this would have been a really awkward moment...

3.  Just Plain Bizarre.  It's difficult for me to know whether some American stories come off as equally strange to a French reader.  However, there are some weird ones out there.  Les Poissons Savent-ils Nager? (Do Fish Know How To Swim?) unfortunately became a favorite of our kids, even finding its way into a prior blog post.  The story, in brief, goes like this:  

One day, the fish will decide to walk out of the ocean and join society.  They will make their fortune hunting shrimp.  The will buy clothes, eat flowers, and otherwise integrate into human society.  The shrimp will get wise and head into the forest to get away.  While hunting for mushrooms, the fish rediscover the shrimp's hiding place.  Shrimp hide in the treetops.  While attending a fish/human wedding on tight-ropes in the forest (not kidding), the shrimp are rediscovered, and subsequently hunted by fish with rifles (see #1).  The fish grow wings, and the flying fish hunt them.  Finally, the shrimp escape underground.  In despair, the humans build a rocket to seek the shrimp in outer space, and the fish build a boat to look on other continents.  Boat sinks, and the fish discover they like living underground.  Meanwhile, the shrimp come out of hiding and take up fishing to feed themselves.  Shrimp and earthworms live in a utopia-like ever-after.

You can probably guess that the language-learner has a lot of "is this really saying what I think it's saying?" moments.

4. Docteur Dog.  This gets a category all its own.  I picked up this book, about a dog who cares for all the maladies of his hygenically-impaired family, thinking that it might be amusing, and I could pick up some medically-relevant vocabulary.  Well, it started off OK, with someone who has a cold and then indigestion.  It explains the popular origin of these diseases (not washing hands, for instance), and then Docteur Dog prescribes a treatment.  

Then, it goes south.  Well, first it goes north, to headlice (with some colorful illustrations), then south, to pinworms.  It proceeds to go from bad to worse, and the finale is grandpa, who has bad gas (from too much beer and beans), having such a forceful episode on the toilet, that he and his porcelain bust out through the ceiling of the house, and go flying through the neighborhood.

Well, Maggie was absolutely terrified, and we never finished it (which is just as well).  I took the book back early, at her request to never see it again.  It's several weeks later, and she still freaks out, with repetitive phrases like "I don't ever want to get worms!" and "I don't want bugs in my hair!"

Not sure how to categorize that, but it's an experience we are not soon to forget.

(Si un de nos amis français lisait cela, j'aimerais beaucoup savoir vos pensées...)


James said...

Well, Barb is still not reconciled to Hilaire Belloc's Matilda, which I love, so I suspect culture runs deep when it comes to children's books.

Theresa said...

Every single word of this post cracked me up, Eric! When we were studying Swahili, I tried to find indigenous children's books ~ nope. Glad you've been able to enrich your language learning.

Sarah H said...

Oh my WORD... I am CRACKING UP... Laughing right out loud. :)