Thursday, 31 August 2017

A love of French and Belgian Children's Books and a question - Are we done with 'dark and wordy' books? A ReadItTorial

I really wish I could brush up on my French skills. I did pretty badly in school, retaining just enough knowledge to get me into hot water with any native French-speaker but if there's one real reason I wish I'd learned more French, it's to be able to fully enjoy French children's books.

At the moment I've been reading a translated version of "Le Petit Loup Rouge" (The Little Red Wolf) by Amelie Flechais, which is easily one of the most stunning children's books I've seen this year. Obviously we've only just seen it in the UK (actually the US, as I'm pretty sure it hasn't officially been released in the UK yet - publishers, get on that pronto!) but the French have had the book for a while (since 2014 in fact).

Sadly, this is the case for an awful lot of French books, once again driving my desire to learn more of the language. Of course it might not seem important for picture book fans to be able to thoroughly read and translate what is largely an illustrated children's book, but it does make a world of difference in understanding the subtleties of the language, and what's often lost in even the best translations to English.

We've read through a few French-only books before, most notably "La Visite De Petite Mort" by Kitty Crowther. Some of Kitty's astonishingly brilliant books have been translated, but so far not this one - which is a crying shame.

You see over the channel in France and Belgium, children's authors and illustrators are still gloriously in love with the darkly tinged children's stories that we seem to have lost all taste for (at least editorial taste, I'm pretty sure there's still a huge consumer demand for darker children's stories that aren't all fluffy bunny wunnies or cute kitties).

Taking "Le Petit Loup Rouge" as a fine example of a darker children's book that draws on the original Little Red Riding Hood fairytale, this is not only a stunning book to look at, it's a version of the story that pours on a dark and almost funereal atmosphere.

The main protagonist, the most adorable red-hooded wolf you'll ever meet in a book, doesn't always have a smooth ride as the story unfolds. He is tricked, he becomes victim to a rather horrid (though seemingly adorable) little girl, and he cries bucketloads when it seems all is lost.

As much as we celebrate books that deal with children's emotional states, we don't see books that tap into their fears, anxieties and concerns in a constructive way.

Perhaps there's a misapprehension that darker children's stories are too disturbing for our cotton-wrapped delicate little wallflowers who are never told 'no' and aren't frequently confronted with situations that put them outside their comfort zone.

We've championed darker books on the blog before, always careful to draw a line between what's comfortably acceptable when it comes to darker children's stories, and what's clearly beyond their age group.

It feels almost like literature is the one area where parents are overtly protective of what their children consume. Parents seem happy to let their kids loose on age inappropriate movies or videogames and yet won't let them read books that they feel are 'too old' for them. I wonder why this is? Again, with the caveat of stating categorically that it's pretty flipping obvious when something's going to be disturbing or too much for your child, but it does feel like there's an odd imbalance here.

The last point of this week's editorial clangs on about that sorest of sore subjects for me, that bloody formulaic word count / spread count / "All Picture Books Have To Be This Way Or GTFO" thing. Again, it's probably sour grapes to keep harping on about this point, but in several recent examples of digging into French picture books and comics, it seems our lovely Gallic cousins across the channel don't share the same inhibitions when it comes to wordier and longer children's books that push beyond that 32 page / 12 spread / 500 word limit.

Again, referring back to "Le Petit Loup Rouge", this isn't a book that's over and done with in such a neat little timeline. It's a book that ditches the laconic and abrupt storytelling tropes we're seeing more and more of in UK and US publishing, taking its time to deliver a wholly satisfying reading experience that perhaps does need to be chipped away at over the course of several bedtimes, but feels all the more immersive, satisfying and enjoyable for it. It almost feels like there's more consideration for the creative process, and less for 'let's make it fit, let's make it tidy, let's make it economically viable'.

J'adore French books at the moment (again, pardon my terrible, terrible language skills) and I'm beginning to think that the more books we introduce to UK / US readers from right across the world, translated or otherwise, the better off and better read we'll all be.