Why French children's books might keep grown ups awake at night

The Local France
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Why French children's books might keep grown ups awake at night
"The revenge of the rabbits", Photo: Public Domain

Children's books in France aren’t afraid to take on dark, political and disturbing subjects, whether we’re afraid to read them to youngsters is another matter.


Tales for children have always had a slightly sinister edge. Think back to the Grimm tales, or even to more recent years; there’s one book from everyone’s childhood that has stuck with them as creepy.

France, among other countries, is still pushing the boundaries of what is considered appropriate for children.

“I don't know why so many French children's books are so bafflingly, needlessly frightening” said English expat Jenny Colgan, who started compiling the terrifying kid’s books she found in France.

Titles included “The weight of disappointment”, “Dark bedrooms” and “Little death’s visit” – all with intentionally or unintentionally disturbing illustrations to match.

Photo: Public Domain

Others were more politically incorrect or adult than creepy, like “Lily’s thief” or “The day when daddy killed his old aunt” (based on a true story).

Photo: Public Domain

Clementine Beauvais, a childhood and education researcher and children’s author, says French kids' books differ from those abroad. 

“One thing that I’m absolutely positive about is that the themes tend to be much more daring [in French children’s books],” she told The Local.

“There’s more reflection of social issues: political commitment, illness and social themes, she said. That's perhaps something that UK audiences in particular might find shocking."

Photo: Public Domain

“My French books, for most of them, are unpublishable in the UK, especially my YA books, because they would have to be readjusted for adults," said Beauvais.

How do books aimed at French children get away with such adult themes?

Well, the answer might be a little more complicated than “the French love to traumatise their kids”.

The majority of French children's books are translations and mainstream books have the usual kind of harmless fluffy bunny antics.

But some French books for children can contain very racy, adult, political and “uncomfortable” content because there are so many independent publishers who can take risks on some more left-of-field titles, compared to the UK, who have very few.

Daring books don’t escape some backlash in France either.

Photo: "Tous à poil", Marc Daniau and Claire Franek – Éditions du Rouergue, 2011

The children’s book “Everybody naked” ("Tous à poil") which aimed to deconstruct nudity provoked an outraged Jean-Francois Copé, then leader of France’s centre right Les Republicains party, to denounce the book on television.

But of course, this is France, and the public rallied against the attempted censorship, boosting the book, which contains lines like “we all have buttocks, a tummy button, genitals and even moles”, to a number one bestseller.

"The book should not be the target of intolerance – it allows all citizens the possibility of having an informed look at today's society, and the world of tomorrow," said a group of French book publishers and sellers, who posed naked to protest his remarks.

So, should we get less squeamish about what we read to our kids? Or do French children’s books still you keep you up at night? 

by Rose Trigg



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