Picture book publishing in France is supported by an infrastructure of well attended book fairs and children’s bookshops. But why do so few of these high quality titles cross the Channel? Quentin Blake investigates.
What strikes me first about French children’s books or certainly about the best of them is their dynamism and variety; the taste and panache of their covers, the readiness to try anything new and experimental. This is not restricted to the books themselves. It is expressed also, for instance, in the phenomenon of the Salon du Livre de Jeunesse – the children’s book fair or festival. The blockbuster of these is at Montreuil, one of the Paris banlieues. The main square is entirely covered, there are talks and discussions, visiting authors and artists, workshops and exhibitions of originals. Most importantly, every French publisher has a stand. Over four days there are something like 150,000 visitors – children, parents, teachers, librarians – who have come to look at, and buy, books.
Perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that this is not an isolated event; it sometimes seems to me that every self-respecting town in France has either a book fair or a children’s book fair – Cherbourg, Avignon, Limoges, Arles, Bordeaux, Nantes, Marseilles – and smaller towns too are ready annually to put on such an event.
Many of those salons depend on the cooperation, or are the initiative, of France’s specialist children’s bookshops. There are some sixty of them, like L’Eau Vive in Avignon, or La CourteEchelle in Rennes, in touch with each other’s activities and initiatives.
France also has a range of children’s magazines of a sort that we do not have here. Gallimard has Le Blaireau, very much directed at primary schools. Bayard Presse has a whole stable of titles; Astrapi, for instance, for eight-year-olds or thereabouts, has stories, information, and things to do presented not only with a sense of responsibility but with a visual wit and flair which makes many adult magazines look turgid. Le Petit Léonard is an art magazine for children of seven and above. And there are many others.
In addition, somewhere between these magazines and plcturebooks, there is a myriad of small books – like the ‘Lili and Max’ series illustrated by Serge Bloch – which deal in a lively fashion with the everyday problems of children’s lives.
French Picture Book Artists
The French tradition of the visual is also able to admit quite a bold and painterly style in the illustration of the picture-book or ‘album’.The list of the publisher L’Ecole des Loisirs, for instance, has a quite different look from anything we would find in England; and this approach makes possible the reputation of an artist such as Grégoire Solotareff, and others working in what is perhaps more a poster than a book-illustration tradition.
But the range of approaches is very wide: from, say, Pef, at one extreme, with a kind of crazy (but intelligent) cartoon-like urgency, through the detailed authenticity of François Place and the restrained strip-cartoon technique of Yvan Pommaux with his excellent Marion Duval stories to, at the other, the elegance and refinement of Georges Lemoins.
I am only too aware that precious little of this gets through to us, and that most of the traffic is going in the other direction (John Burningham, David McKee, Tony Ross, Babette Cole – they are all well-known names in French bookshops).
There are no doubt many reasons for this situation. One, perhaps, is that temperamentally the English are happy working with fantasy, mingled wlth humour. The French take fantasy rather seriously, and see it as something poetical, which is less to the English taste. On the other hand they are obviously enthusiastic about their own everyday life in all its detail. Take for instance Le Carnet d’Albert by Bruno Heitz: a wonderful alphabetical guide to a small boy’s life. From the English viewpoint, such a book presents not only the problems of translating ‘zizi’, ‘zoner’ and ‘zéro de conduite’, but of relating to the French idiosyncracies of routine and habit (though no doubt the school lunch and the visit to McDonald’s would be recognisable anywhere).
The work of many of the artists I have mentioned presents these difficulties – it they are difficulties. Wouldn’t it be nice if in some way we could see some of these in their pure French form, and get up to date about how life is carried on by our interesting neighbours?
Quentin Blake is an illustrator and was head of the Illustration Department of the Royal College of Art from 1978 to 1986. He is published in France by Gallimard.
Copyright, the annual conference of the Institut Français (14 Cromwell Place, London SW7), has Le Livre Jeunesse (French Children’s Books) as its theme this year. It will take place on 4th and 5th December. There will be exhibitions and book stalls featuring French and English children’s books. On 4th December at 11.30am Quentin Blake, Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo will be talking on Children’s Books in France and England. Details from the Institut Français Cultural Centre (0171 838 2144).