France may export gastronomy, fashion and art de vivre to the rest of the world, but it lags behind the English-speaking world in at least one area: children’s book publishing. A browse through the children’s section of a French bookshop will uncover beautifully illustrated, expensively produced books—including a baffling number about wolves—but to an English reader, their content rarely lives up to the creativity of the presentation, nor are they much fun to read aloud.
At their worst, French children’s stories are moralistic and heavy-handed, and even at their best, they are often old-fashioned. Many employ the passé simple, a tense too formal for speech, and the type is frequently very small. Engaging narrative tends to be sacrificed to the visual aspect, as though books were purely vehicles for illustrators. In short, French children’s books seem aimed more at adults than children.
As a parent raising bilingual children, I have been hard pressed to find French books that will scintillate and excite them as much as the English equivalents with their jaunty rhyme, humour and sheer enjoyment of language. So far, not a single French book in our household has been requested night after night, the way "The Tiger Who Came to Tea" is, or "Where the Wild Things Are", "The Gruffalo", or any book by Roald Dahl or Dr Seuss.
When I ask French friends if they agree, they respond in the same puzzled way as when I mention the French practice of no school on Wednesdays, of flunked students retaking the school year or the national fondness for suppositories. The examples most often cited in French children’s books’ defence—both by French and English speakers—are cases in point. "The Adventures of Babar", "The Little Prince" and "Asterix", all familiar to non-French speakers around the world, rest on the laurels of exquisite illustration and all had characters created before 1960. It shows in "Babar"—anyone who has read it recently to a child will have been struck by the patronising, colonialist tone, while "The Little Prince" (arguably an adults’ book, much like "Alice in Wonderland") is rendered equally opaque by its abstract philosophising. "Asterix" is different, with its uncharacteristic, word-based wit and self-deprecating Frenchness. But it belongs to the bande dessinée category—a quite different sector, distinctly Francophone and mainly aimed at adults. Its writer, René Goscinny, may have written in French, but he was born to Polish immigrant parents and only moved to France at the age of 25. So perhaps it is the exception that proves the rule.
"The aim of French books", says Gilliane Quinn, a Paris-based Irish mother of bilingual children, "is often to get across a moral or an educational perspective. The stories don’t usually have a happy ending like English ones do. Chapters of 'Les Malheurs de Sophie', for example [Victorian tales of a little girl’s mischief, published 1858], always end horrifically, with the mother dying, the boat sinking, the horrible stepmother or the child being beaten as punishment for a prank. English or American stories wouldn’t leave their audience in such emotional despair, and yet 'Les Malheurs' are one of the big successes of French literature." An American edition of "Babar", incidentally, omits the opening scene, in which young Babar’s mother is gruesomely killed by poachers.
There are other reasons why the French do not export many children’s books to the English-speaking world. The British market is richly supplied without needing to import books, and publishers’ scouts on that side of the Channel seldom speak French as well as their counterparts speak English. The Lang law of 1981 gives French book pricing fierce protection, making them more expensive to buy, as does the French tradition of preferring a hardback.
As for the lack of fun in the writing, could it be that French, with many words ending in a silent "e", and a relatively small vocabulary (it is said to contain a fifth as many words as English), is less conducive to rhyme and puns and onomatopoeia? Compared with Britain, a nation of shopkeepers after all, literature in France has long been a highbrow and non-commercial affair. The loyalty to pre-1950s children’s classics may derive from the publishing scene’s old-fashioned attitudes. In France, both advances and print runs are small, literary agents are almost unknown, and authors are afforded god-like respect and barely edited.
Until recently, the most watched television programme in France was "La Dictée de Bernard Pivot", in which the show’s host dictated a text for contestants to take down. Adult-bestseller lists are dominated by philosophical and political titles—a far cry from Britain with its cookery books and celebrity memoirs—although translated fiction does enjoy increasing popularity. Dozens of literary prizes are awarded every year in France, and the awards season is preceded by a period known as la rentrée littéraire, between August and November, when the books world buzzes with Oscar-like anticipation.
Children’s literature is not valued as highly as adult writing. There is only one prize for children’s books, compared with Britain’s eight, and there is no equivalent of the children’s laureate. Classics such as "Les Fables de la Fontaine" (a French Aesop), "Les Malheurs de Sophie" and Jules Verne’s futuristic stories are still part of the obligatory canon, and they are read by children at a much earlier age than most English children would read, say, Dickens. It is hard to call to mind any modern French writer as inventive or iconic as Lauren Child (author of the Charlie and Lola series) or Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (creators of "The Gruffalo" and a pile of other bestsellers), even if, at first glance, French books, with their odd shapes and sizes, look much more fun.
The editorial director of Gallimard Jeunesse, Christine Baker, is a Frenchwoman married to an Englishman, and she commutes to Paris from London. She first went to London over 30 years ago, specifically to work at the Children’s Book Centre in Kensington High Street. Over the years she has built up a bestselling list for Gallimard, including a significant number of English titles. It was Baker who introduced Harry Potter to France, where the series sells very well, no mean feat in a culture that is suspicious of commercial success. Harry’s warm reception in France has been ascribed partly to the films of the books, partly to the quality of the translation.
"I am often criticised in France for bringing over too many English books," Baker says. "I am not publishing them because they’re in English, but because they’re the best. British children’s literature is one of this country’s best exports. In France, there has been a dearth of good books since the Père Castor series [of books with a heavy emphasis on fairy tales and sumptuous illustrations, started in 1936 and still widely read]. We simply do not take children’s books seriously."
French schools are partly to blame, Baker argues. "The education system is much less creative, much more rigid, and children have a lot more homework than in Britain, so they do not read for pleasure as much." However, she does feel that things are changing. J.K. Rowling is now discussed with respect, as is Philip Pullman with "His Dark Materials", and, Baker says, their influence is beginning to be felt. "French children’s writers now understand who they are writing for: the child, as opposed to the adult. They feel liberated, and I am seeing French books now which no longer deal with idealised aspects of childhood, but are story-driven. I have been waiting all my career for books like 'Toby Lolness' by Timothée de Fombelle." Published in France in 2006, "Toby Lolness"—the tale of a boy who is a millimetre and a half tall—not only made it across the Channel, but even won a prize in Britain.
The rigorous education system does have its uses, though. It may explain why French non-fiction children’s books are leaders in their field. Building on the tradition of Larousse’s illustrated dictionaries and encyclopedias, the imageries for children published mainly by Fleurus combine educational themes with inventive graphics and formats, and their translations do well in foreign markets, including Britain.
The other area in which the French lead the way is children’s magazines. Since the 1960s, Bayard Presse has published first-rate magazines that take children from the cradle to university. Widely available at newsstands and supermarkets, titles such as J’aime Lire, Astrapi and Okapi are as intrinsic to a French child’s life as their creaky old classics. They contain a healthy mix of story-telling, science and craft-based activities, all aligned to the national curriculum.
The Bayard Group, started in 1873 by a Catholic priest, is still owned by the religious community he founded at the same time. With over 150 titles, Bayard controls 27% of the youth-magazine market, ahead of its rival Hachette-Disney which publishes magazines featuring film characters. Although most of Bayard’s titles are non-religious, its skill at bringing educational subjects to life may have been honed by the long tradition of catechism still practised in France, in which the Bible is presented in colourful ways to children. One magazine, Abricot, aimed at three-to-seven-year-olds, has a regular feature called "Les P’tits Philosophes", which discusses questions such as "What’s infinity?" This may explain why Bayard has had trouble launching its titles in Britain, where children of that age are still grappling with Peppa Pig.
To paraphrase a French paradox, which questions why France has a low incidence of heart disease despite a diet rich in saturated fat, the French must be doing something right after all, because their child literacy levels are consistently respectable. In the meantime, my children and I are still looking for stories in French that we can enjoy together. Time to try "Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers".