In his semi-autobiographical novel Une Vie Francaise (Le Seuil), Jean-Paul Dubois’s hero Paul is sent to England by his parents to stay with an English family with a view to improving his English. He is sent to East Grinstead which he describes as a ‘trou sans fond’ (a hole with no bottom). I had better luck when aged 12 I was sent to stay with a Parisian family who lived not far from the Eiffel Tower. My mother tried to prepare me for this trip with a heavy and intimidating tome from the library on the monuments of Paris. By good fortune, however, my younger brother had been given a copy of Miroslav Sasek’s This is Paris (1959), a travel guide for children of great wit and charm in picture book format. Monuments, transport, people, quirky details such as different kinds of letter boxes are all included while the well placed illustrations in the East European style are full of gaiety. Particularly brilliant is the double page spread of the Eiffel Tower. Sasek boldly conveys its great height by chopping it in two (the bottom half is placed on the left hand page and the top half on the right) as though it were too impossibly tall to fit onto one page. Its height is further suggested by a tiny car driving past. When I arrived in Paris I at once felt at home as so much that I saw was familiar from this wonderful book.
Rereading This is Paris as an adult (it has been reprinted at last!), I realise how very European it is – it is a book about the capital of France, written and illustrated by a man born in Czechoslovakia who lived in Paris for some years and it was first published in England. On the corner of the right hand front endpaper before we enter the book we see the artist with his portfolio heading towards Paris and if we turn to the endpaper at the back of the book we see him leaving Paris, still carrying his portfolio. But how he has changed! The conventional man at the beginning of the book in a suit with a hat and tie has been transformed into a beret wearing, bearded artist with a polo neck jumper, just like those we see in Montmartre. And for the young reader too, Sasek’s introduction to Paris will be transformational.
So how should we present other European countries to children in their literature? A recent agreeable example is Agnieszka Mrówczynska and Prodeepta Das’ P is for Poland (2008), an alphabet book illustrated by beautiful photographs of artefacts, people and scenes from Polish life – glowing amber, embroidered linen, children eating poppy cake and so forth. What is significant about this title which was commissioned by the publisher to be part of a series of alphabet books featuring different countries is their choice of author. Agnieszka Mrówczynska is Polish and although she now lives in England she often visits her family in Poland. The young reader is thereby introduced to Poland by a book which is written from a genuinely Polish perspective and which takes pleasure, as Sasek’s This is Paris does, in the richness and uniqueness of a particular culture.
P is for Poland by Agnieszka Mrówczynska and Prodeepta Das (Frances Lincoln, 978 1 84507 917 8, £11.99)
This is Paris by Miroslav Sasek (Universe Publishing, 978 0 7893 1063 7, £10.99)