The French Are Here . . . And They Want Your Children
I was going through a box of new Candlewick releases the other day when I came across a charming little board book by the name of Peekaboo Baby. It’s your standard lift-the-flap reveal-the-baby number, the kind Karen Katz has perfected to an art. A person can’t have too many lift-the-flaps in the house, of course, particularly when the intended audience’s books suffer at a high casualty rate. While packing it away to test on my small fry I noticed the author’s name Sebastien Braun. It got me to thinking. The French . . . there’s no escaping them. Do we even want to? And do we, in fact, need them more than ever before?
Here’s the thing. I first noticed the influx of French baby and board books into the American market last year. Hervé Tullet may have gotten the most attention for the Chronicle translation of his book Press Here, but Phaidon released his board books as well. Then there was Martine Perrin and the successful Albert Whitman releases of Look Who’s There! and What Do You See? Add in the picture book translations as well while you’re add it. One-namer Frenchmen like Barroux and Blexbolex have come to our shores as well.
Then this month I learned that the French publisher Auzou was starting to publish books here in America for the small fry. Getting a peek at their titles I was very impressed by books like Wolf Are You There? by Eleonore Thuillier. A cheery book, it manages to contain everything from real shoelaces and buttons to snaps, velcro, and zippers, so that kids can practice those difficulties times other than when they need to get dressed. Auzou has a whole range of titles (including a scratch and sniff book!) and it looks like they’ll be here for a while. Last but not least I received in the mail a board book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt entirely in French. It’s at my workplace at the moment, so I’ll tell you what the title was when I get back there, but it’s a beautiful little thing and it will prove very useful in the future.
Here is the true crux of the matter. In my new capacity as NYPL’s Youth Materials Specialist I’ve had a chance to do something entirely new to me: I’m looking at census figures. I’m seeing where the immigration patterns in the city lay, which communities need one language or another from their local branches, the works. What I have noticed has surprised me. We’ve the same need for Spanish, Chinese, and Russian titles that we always have. There are even pockets in need of Italian, Hebrew, Tagalog, etc. here and there. What I could not have predicted, however, was the increasingly desperate need for French books for children. The reasons make perfect sense when you consider them. Immigrants from French speaking countries in Africa are routinely moving to New York City. With them they bring their children and a need for new books in this language. I’d wager that NYC is not alone in serving this population either.
The irony at work here is that while we may be seeing a French New Wave of children’s authors and illustrators, they’re all translated. With the exception of the recent HMH title I cannot fill my patrons’ needs with these books. The solution? My hope is that in the future we’ll see more bilingual English/French titles. English/Spanish books make up a significant part of my library’s collection, aiding patrons who wish to learn a new language or are more comfortable with one or another. If publishers were to do the same for the French it would benefit language learners as well as those in need.
In the meantime, we get to reap the benefits of the publishers’ newfound comfort with translated baby and picture books. I’ll be watching the trends with interest from here on in . . . to say nothing of enjoying the books!
Psst! Want to get a look at some of the French children’s books we may someday see on our shores? Then check out my favorite French children’s literary blog Pop op.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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