Tuesday, August 14, 2012

a new chapitre in Griffin's life

Griffin is happy to read board books and picture books with Gwyneth and me, but is he ready for something more substantial?
Chapter books!  So far my husband and I have only read picture books to Griffin.  But seeing how much he enjoys re-reading certain ones--the Knuffle Bunny series in English, T'choupi in French--and how he responds well to authors with very distinctive styles--such as Robert Munsch in English or in French translation--and how he loves to see familiar characters in new books, like the Berenstain Bears or Benjamin--all this makes me think that he's ready for longer books that would permit him to follow characters during longer story arcs.

My mom, nostalgic for the days when she and my dad read me Sandburg's The Rootabaga Stories and Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, tried reading Little House in the Big Woods to Griffin last year.  It couldn't keep his attention, though, and rather than forcing him to listen, she graciously set the beloved tome aside.

Now, though, he's 4.5 years old, and I really like the idea of sharing a great children's novel with him, one chapter a night, so last week I decided to start.

But then I had to actually choose a chapter book in French!  I have very few of those (we've amassed a respectable collection of French picture books, and I have short stories and novels from my teaching career and graduate school, but not much in between).

For lack of better options, and because Griffin connects better to stories about boys (or anthropomorphized animals who are males) than those about girls, we started Le petit Nicolas by Sempe & Goscinny (the first in a series of books, published in 1959, and well beloved throughout the francophone world).

Griffin adores books so much that he will gladly listen to someone read him the cereal box, so he was very open to the idea of having me share with him this chapter book about a mischievous little boy and his adventures with his friends at school.  (He's disappointed, though, that the illustrations are limited mainly to small black-line drawings every couple of pages.)

We're about five chapters in--the chapters aren't too long--and I'm already seeing that this perhaps wasn't the best choice for our First Chapter Book In French: each chapter is like a self-contained short story with a plot that doesn't extend into the following chapter (though the characters recur).  The characters are all referred to by their last names, which are completely unfamiliar to my son, and which perhaps makes it harder for him to relate to them.  Plus, a lot of the scenes take place in a school from a couple of generations ago.  As Griffin has only been attending a touchy-feely preschool two days a week--in the US--the concept of an elementary-school-level all-boy classroom (boys who hit each other regularly, no less) with an unsympathetic teacher and a surveillant (kind of like an attendance officer) is far beyond his realm of comprehension.

Of course, that's the beauty of literature, that it can show us other worlds that we haven't experienced, and I do want Griffin to learn about French culture.  But still, I'm not sure if Le petit Nicolas is the best tour guide!

What do you think?  What chapter books in French would be appropriate for an American four-year-old?  Which ones (in English or French) have your children enjoyed the most?

UPDATE (August 31):  At a library far afield, we found a French translation of one of the Mercy Watson easy chapter books by Kate DiCamillo.  In this one, Mercy Watson a la rescousse, the cheerful, toast-loving porcine protagonist leaves the house in search of food and returns with two helpful firemen and two spinster neighbors.

This popular series (six books so far) serves as a transition between the longer Easy Readers (like Frog and Toad or Amelia Bedelia) and traditional chapter books, which are more intricate and have fewer (if any) illustrations.  As you can see, the Mercy Watson books offer large print, lots of white space on the page, and drawings, making them especially appealing to young readers:

The chapters are short enough that we read two or three at a time and finished the book in less than a week.  Griffin seemed to like it better than Petit Nico, but he still asks me to read to him from the latter as well!


  1. Or perhaps it would make sense to choose a book that exists both in English and in French so that my husband and I can read him the same book: chapter one in French with me, chapter two in English with Daddy, and so forth?

  2. Agreed, le petit Nico's world is a little bit harsh for a tender-hearted 4-yr-old. Sometimes the way he narrates his parents' martial strife in supposedly cute innocence makes me cringe. If you want him to read (gentler) French classics, he might like things like Le petit prince (St-Exupery), or L'Enfant et la riviere (Henri Bosco), in another couple of years. Or George Sand; she wrote a number of short novels/stories for children, not quite for such younglings as your son, but maybe he'd like "Le Chene parlant". I'm sure you can even download it from Gutenberg.org.

    I know you don't have unlimited access to French libraries and bookstores... If you search for terms like "les meilleurs livres jeunesse", "les meilleurs livres pour les 3-6 ans / les 5-10 ans" etc., you'll find an abundance of lists created by teachers, librarians & booksellers. Here's an example: http://www.gallimard-jeunesse.fr/Conseils-de-lecture/Developper-son-imaginaire-6-9-ans

    Even in France, it is actually much easier to find English books translated into French than French-written books. Most of the "French classics" that French people grow up with are foreign, most originally in English but sometimes in other languages, and probably books you liked as a child in the US. Pippi Longstocking [Fifi Brindacier], Alice in Wonderland, The Velveteen Rabbit, Roald Dahl's books, more recent series like "The Magic Treehouse"... So you might head for the library and find some series or authors that Griffin likes (in English) and then procure the French translation.

    Have fun with your super reader! I enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing.
    --another Sarah

    1. Oh, Sarah, thank you for these concrete suggestions and for your encouragement.

      I had never realized how popular kids' lit in translation is in France! When I studied abroad, I actually bought a couple of Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Astrid Lindgren books in translation to have something to read that I could readily understand. But it felt like "cheating" to read them to Griffin--now that I know that translations like these are a common part of childhood in France, it's as if you're giving me permission to share them with my kids!

      Thanks also for the ideas of authors and resources to investigate. Do you have a sense of at what age French children might read Le petit prince? We have that one, but much of it would probably go over my four-year-old's head. (On the other hand, he'd probably see it as a fun adventure story.)

    2. Hello again. :) I have just looked at my children's bookshelf and spotted one native French series that they love: "Les p'tites poules", by Christian Jolibois and Christian Heinrich (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_P'tites_Poules).
      As for the age at which French children might read Le petit prince, or the type of books that average French children read, I wouldn't worry about that if I were you. Most "average" college-educated French adults I know only read comic books, police thrillers and sport magazines. I bet Griffin is going to be another type of person altogether. I remember reading that book alone (in English) having just turned 6 and loving the adventure part, and sensing that there was some other mystery behind it that I would understand later.

  3. I used to read Le petit Nicolas when I was 10yo more or less and I totally loved it. It was of course the Spanish version as I don´t speak French. I think that the original version must be even better. Your kid seems to be much into books so although he is in my oppinion young for this kind of stories, he might enjoy it already.
    As an adult I´ve sometimes re-read some chapters and it´s adorable. My favourite character is Alcestes, the fatty-greedy friend.

    1. Dani, thanks for sharing your perspective as a Spaniard who grew up loving this book (thus providing a ringing endorsement of the value of children's lit in translation)!

      One other element that makes Le petit Nicolas such a good choice for students learning French is that it's written in "passe compose" (the spoken version of the simple past tense) rather than the "passe simple" (more more formal, used almost exclusively in writing, which means that students are not exposed to it as much).

  4. While I have nothing to contribute to your questions (we don't speak French, and my son is only 2.5 - much too early for chapter books), I find the question very thought-provoking. I recently found out that we are expecting another boy, and - after the shock wore off - one of the many questions I had was, what will I read to my growing boys? Not that books have to be gender-specific, but as you point out, it seems logical for a little boy to relate more to book about a boy. I was sad, though, to think my boys may never take an interest in the Little House books - I was so looking forward to reading them again to my child/ren some day! But who knows - maybe one of them will like them :)
    Trying to figure out what books to get in a language that you didn't grow up with is tricky. I have a good many picture books in German now. But even my native-German friend was wondering about German books to get for her little boy, as she grew up reading more "girly" books.
    I am intrigued by your idea of a book that is available in both English and French. I wonder if there would be any difficulty in translation, depending on how closely the translator stuck to the original? But it's a fun idea! I second the idea of Roald Dahl. Another fun one could be Ramona the Pest - since she is starting school as Griffin will be soon. (Even though the main character is a girl, it seems to be one that crosses genders well enough. My mom used to read it to her 2nd grade class with great success.)
    I look forward to hearing how things progress for you and Griffin!

    1. Kate! Congratulations!!!

      I hope your boys will enjoy the Little House books--maybe if you start reading them aloud when Aleksander is still young enough to want to please his mother?!

      Oh yeah, the Ramona books! And Beverly Cleary also had some other chapter books with boy main characters. I should ask one of the children's librarians for recommendations for good early read-aloud chapter books, and then check Amazon.fr to see if they've been translated.

      Oh, how about The Boxcar Children? I loved, loved, loved that in early elementary school, and it's very simple.

  5. My daughter aged 7 adores the Nicolas stories, but she has already been at a French school for 4 years, so that world is probably quite familiar! They always remind me of the Just William series in English, old-fashioned very cheeky antics!

    As for recommendations of French chapter books, my son aged 5 adores Mini-Loup by Philippe Matter, which comes in various formats for different age ranges. Mini-Loup is a also a cheeky character, a little wolf, who gets up to all sorts, some factual like his first day at some, some fantastical, like a day with pirates!

    Then there is the Mes Premiers J'aime Lire' series, which we bought second hand on eBay. This is a magazine you subscribe to, and each one contains a long story told in chapters, followed by some shorter stories/cartoons/jokes etc. The long stories are in general really engaging, my two adore them. Each one comes with an audio CD, so they can listen along (or just listen!).

    I would also recommend Collection les belles histoires by Bayard Poche publishers. This series features quite quirky stories, with cartoon-style illustrations. Some of them are a bit odd, but the best of the bunch are categorised as 'des livres d'humour' and my children find them laugh out loud funny.

    As for translations, my all-time favourite children's book, which you can find in French & English, is The Phantom Tollbooth, or Le Royaume Phantome. Griffin probably wouldn't be ready for it just yet, though!

    1. Okay, so now I want to go to France and spend a week in a library (and then have a shopping spree in a bookstore)! (Or if I'm willing to be patient, on eBay Canada; having used books and magazines shipped to me isn't too outrageous.)

      Thank you so much for all the suggestions--most of the titles and series were completely new to me. And as a non-native speaker, I would really appreciate the ability to listen to the books on CD along with Griffin!

      PS: The Phantom Tollbooth: Oh yes. Magical and whimsical and thought-provoking.

  6. Salut Sarah! My cousins from Belgium used to read Martine: Martine au zoo, Martine au parc, Martine au circ, Martine fait du camping... Maybe Griffin would like them too, even if the main character is a girl...

    1. I guess you already know these ones, but just in case, CRIN BLANC and LE BALLON ROUGE (books + films) are great! Marta

    2. Hola Marta! Thanks for reminding me of the Martine books. I've only seen one of them--a hand-me-down Martine at Christmastime-type book. It didn't do much for him when we had it out during the holidays last year, but I'll have to try it again.

      Thanks also for the other recommendations. Griffin did see Le ballon rouge, and liked it more than I would have expected (since it's an older film with no dialogue), but I hadn't thought of finding the book.

      Crin Blanc is new to me, but based on the customer reviews at amazon.fr, it sounds like a book we need to add to our collection at home!


      I see that you are considering adding French to your son's linguistic repertoire--keep us posted! Thanks again for your comments.

    3. Next time you go to France, take Griffin to the south and see the many crin blancs running in the Camargue region :). He'll love it!

    4. Sounds good to me...I've never been to the Camargue.

      Of course, now that he's learning Spanish, we'll also want to visit your country too! (I've never been there either.)

  7. Thanks for these great resources, in the post and in the comments. Pablo is about the same age than Griffin, but I found chapter books hard at this age because of the lack of images.

    I tried to read cartoons that I had. It worked and Pablo is now a fan of Asterix le Gaulois. Since some Asterix can also be seen in French on YouTube for free, he wants Asterix everyday.


    1. Salut Franck! Thank you for the suggestion of Asterix books. So far, the only comic books that Griffin has been exposed to is Tintin (because he saw the recent film in English); my husband was reading a Tintin in English to him but it was too hard for him to follow, so I knew not to even try Tintin in French.

      However, Asterix is a great idea, especially if we could watch clips on YouTube! I also have a couple of "Les Schtroumpfs" books ("Smurfs") that I bought as a study abroad student because the characters were alrelady familiar to me. As far as cartoons go, they're pretty dorky (and sexist), but I bet they would appeal to my favorite four-year-old.

      The more I think about comic books in French for Griffin, the more excited I get. They offer what I'm looking for in a chapter book--a longer plot line than picture books, repeated encounters with the same characters--but with images!

      Which series might offer the most accurate portrayal of French (or francophone) culture? I know that Asterix illustrates some of the stereotypical French traits (and provides an intro to French history)--but are there any contemporary bandes dessinees that depict everyday life and would also appeal to a little boy?

    2. The 2 comic books Pablo likes a lot in French are Asterix and Lucky Luke. Lucky Luke is however about the Wild West... which I liked a lot as a child! I will have to do some research when I go back to France over Christmas. Pablo's cousins will tell me what cartoon they like.

    3. "Lucky Luke"--how ironic that the one Pablo recommends doesn't have anything to do with French culture! I'll check out the series anyway for Griffin.

      Thanks for offering to do some research about popular comic books in France!

  8. My other comment disappeared but I wanted to add two suggestions about series of books that my children love and that your son might also enjoy:

    -the series "Les p'tites poules" by Christian Jolibois and Christian Heinrich. They have clever puns, references to "classical" and popular French culture, visual cameos by famous painters, but also silly chickens on an 18th-C farm having adventures that appeal to little kids.

    -the "Polo" books by Regis Faller. These are sort of like comic books but much better, without the occasional adult content and racist/sexist messages that I don't like in some other famous Belgian/French comic books (even Asterix... seriously!). They are gentle magical adventures involving a little dog named Polo who lives alone in a treehouse on a desert island. But there is no text--we make up the story as we go along, in whatever language we like, so either parent can read them and now the children also "read" them to us.

    P.S. I second the idea of Lucky Luke (pronounced "Luc - y - Luc" by the way) if your goal is to expose your son to an authentic French child's reading experience--EVERYONE knows either the comic books or the cartoon and it has become the prism through which they view the American west. There are many other child-friendly comic book series, like "Boule & Bill"...
    Sarah (again)

    1. What wonderful suggestions, Sarah! Thanks especially for the explanations.

  9. Found a French translation of one of the Mercy Watson chapter books (about a fun-loving pig who lives in a house with her owners) and have already read it to Griffin! I'll add the details to this post about chapter books.

    1. Then we read Oui-Oui au pays des jouets, a translation of one of the classic "Noddy" books by Enid Blyton: