Saturday, July 7, 2007

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

Last week's essay on patriotism lends awareness to France's coming Bastille Day (July 14th), a celebration not dissimilar to our July 4th. It has always struck me as an irony of history that the French king's critical military and financial support of our own Revolution so soon returned to his disadvantage with the subsequent French Revolution, partly inspired and inflamed by the American Revolution. Severance pay as it were. Because France is not, perhaps, top of mind in our political discourse, except when we have irritated one another over some issue, it is easy to overlook how long-lasting and significant the ties between our countries and cultures have been.

In part this is because, compared to other countries, there has not been a distinctive period where there was a "wave" of immigration from France to the US. In part it is also because the largest population movements were very early in our own history, meaning that many people are unaware of their own family connections to France because they go back two or three hundred years. And yet, the evidence is there when you start looking around. It shows up in place names, such as Montpelier, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Des Moines, Boise, Dubuque, etc. It shows up in demographics, and not just in Louisiana and the Cajun culture. Approximately 5% of Americans have some French heritage, and in three states (Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire) close to a quarter of the population has some French background. You can see it in the history and architecture of some cities on the East coast such as Savannah and Charleston where there was significant settlement of Huguenot refugees in the late 1600 and early 1700's.

Many times the connection is hidden not just by remoteness in time, but by being one or two removes in sequence. Most of the early Huguenot refugees settled initially in Britain and the Netherlands before moving on to the American colonies a generation or two later. The Cadillac is a still a potent symbol of American luxury cars, but who knew that it was named for a city in Michigan that was, in turn, named for the French explorer Antonie de Cadillac).

I thought that, in recognition of Bastille Day and the long standing relationship between America and France, we would highlight books about France and French personages: that is, books set in France, by Frenchmen, French folktales, French fairy tales or books relevant to France in some other way.

The presence of France in our own history tends, in most children's books, to center around three pivotal events; things to do with exploration and the early settlement of the continent (LaSalle, Champlain, Cartier, Antonie de Cadillac); with early American colonial history such as French and Indian Wars and France's support during the American Revolution; and, finally, with Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, a real estate deal involving land which represents nearly a quarter of the current contiguous United States. After that, there is not much that is a distinct focus on France.

Again, though, once you start looking, there are all sorts of ways that France shows up in children's books. Many of our most popular folk and fairy tales are of French origin including Puss-in-Boots, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and one of the lesser known but among my favorites, Stone Soup. Charles Perrault in the 1600s was the French equivalent, but predecessor, of the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen and Andrew Lang, collecting, documenting and retelling still extant folk and fairy tales and locking them into the canon. Jean de la Fontaine is another French writer whose stories, three hundred and fifty years later, are still in print. de la Fontaine, though a contemporary of Perrault's in the 1600s, was primarily interested in even older folktales, going back to Greek tales from Aesop as well as even earlier versions from Persian/Indian traditions. He published many dozens of these tales in his lifetime and they collectively became known as the Fables. I find it fascinating that these tales were translated from the original Greek and Persian/Hindu languages into French, but de la Fontaine's storytelling capability was so compelling that his versions have since been translated into English.

There are, of course, also French (and with respect I will include Belgian) authors of children's stories whose works have become established in the pantheon of books well read by American children including, Jean de Brunhoff and his Babar stories, Herge and the Tintin stories, Albert Lamorisse's Red Balloon, Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mysterious Island, Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth), Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Guy de Maupassant (The Necklace and Other Tales) and Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, etc.). Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince should not be missed for older elementary school children, either as a read-to story when young or one they can read for themselves as independent readers. Saint-Exupery was a fascinating adventurer and his books for older readers will appeal to any interested in the early days of flying or aviation adventure in general (Flight to Arras; Night Flight; Wind, Sand and Stars).

There are then also those stories written by others which take place, and could only take place, in France. The Eloise in Paris story by Kay Thompson, Madeline by Ludwig Bemelemans and Eve Titus' Anatole stories.

For older readers there are rich pickings, Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities, Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret series, and Henri Charriere's Papillion. For those classically inclined there is Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur. For history enthusiasts I would recommend both Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror about life in France in the Middle Ages (it's far more interesting than that seven word synopsis can capture), as well as The Guns of August (the origins and very beginning of World War One).

There are some miscellany that you might find intriguing. If you have a child beginning an introduction to the French language, there is a French language version of that classic American story, Goodnight Moon/Bonsoir Lune. There is also Max Et Le Maximontres (Mauric Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are). Take a look also at a favorite of our children's for many years, Cajun Night Before Christmas by Trosclair and illustrated by James Rice. Interestingly, the British mystery writer, Dorothy Sayers, has a translation of that classic of French literature, Song of Roland. In the same vein, one should not forget Thomas Bulfinch's Mythology (includes the Age of Fable, The Age of Chivalry, and Legends of Charlemagne). Bulfinch's mythology ought to appeal to any young adult readers especially fascinated with the mythic fantasy style of writing such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising.

It is out of print now, but keep your eye peeled if you find yourself in a used bookstore for The Greatest Treasure of Charlemagne by Nadia Wheatley.

Finally, we owe a debt of gratitude to France for those sons and daughters who have become significant contributors to our own rich heritage of children's books. The chief candidates that come to mind are Marc Simont and Claire Huchet Bishop. Both were born and raised in France before immigrating to the USA. Bishop is primarily known for that classic The Five Chinese Brothers but also for Pancakes-Paris, All Alone, and Twenty and Ten. Marc Simont is primarily an illustrator and known for A Tree is Nice, Happy Days, Many Moons, Nate the Great, and The Stray Dog and many, many more.

Picture Books

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop

Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop

Stone Soup by Marcia Brown

Bonsoir Lune by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd

The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

Histoire de Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

Babar's Museum of Art by Laurent de Brunhoff

The Hare and the Tortoise by Jean de la Fontaine and Ranjit Bolt and illustrated by Giselle Potter

Puss in Boots retold and illustrated by Paul Galdone

Katie Meets the Impressionists by James Mayhew

Puss in Boots by Charles Perrault and illustrated by Fred Marcellino

Cinderella by Charles Perrault and illustrated by Marcia Brown

Little Red Riding Hood and other stories by Charles Perrault and illustrated by W. Heath Robinson

The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault by Charles Perrault and illustrated by Sally Holmes

Cajun Alphabet by James Rice

This is Paris by Miroslav Sasek

Max Et Le Maximontres (Where the Wild Things Are in French) by Maurice Sendak

The Happy Day by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Marc Simont

Many Moons by James Thurber and illustrated by Marc Simont

Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and illustrated by Marc Simont

The Stray Dog by Marc Simont

Eloise in Paris by Kay Thomoson and illustrated by Hilary Knight

Eloise a Paris (in French) by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight

Anatole by Eve Titus and illustrated by Paul Galdone

Cajun Night Before Christmas by Trosclair and illustrated by James Rice

Independent Reader

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Fables by Jean de la Fontaine and illustrated by R. de la Neziere

The Adventures of Tintin by Herge

Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Le Petite Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and illustrated by Paul Wright

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne and illustrated by Barry Moser

Young Adults

Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch

The Song of Roland by Glyn Burgess

Papillon (in English) by Henri Charriere / Jean-Pierre (INT)

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory

The Necklace and Other Tales by Guy de Maupassant

Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The Song of Roland by Dorothy Sayers

Desiree by Annemarie Selinko

Henry V by William Shakespeare

The Friend of Madame Maigret, Inspector Maigret Series by Georges Simenon

The Yellow Dog, Inspector Maigret series by Georges Simenon

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

Mysterious Island by Jules Verne and illustrated by N. C. Wyeth

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