All Things French for Bastille Day

    Bastille Day (July 14) provides a great excuse for sharing a few French-flavored books.  Ludwig Bemelmans’ “Madeline” series, set in Paris, is just the thing for preschoolers.  The rhymed story about “twelve little girls in two straight lines,” the daring Madeline (”to the tiger in the zoo Madeline just said ‘Pooh-pooh’”), and the dramatic appendicitis attack in the middle of the night (“Miss Clavel turned on her light and said, ‘Something is not right!’”) makes a read-aloud that children will ask for over and over. 

    Barbara McClintock takes children on a treasure hunt through Paris in “Adèle and Simon.”   When big sister Adèle meets her brother after school, she admonishes him not to lose anything on the way home.  From here the children take a circuitous path through parks, museums, a street market and more.  Sharp eyes will spot the belongings Simon leaves behind at every stop and will recognize McClintock’s nod to famous French paintings. 

     Marcia Brown’s Caldecott-winning edition of Charles Perrault’s “Cinderella” is illustrated with charming pastels that capture the magical elements of this famous French fairy tale, from the glittering ball to Cinderella’s lowly seat among the fireplace cinders.  Brown has a witty touch with each character, especially Cinderella’s elegant fairy godmother and the line of unhappy ladies who try to cram their feet into the slipper.

    Another Perrault story, “Puss in Boots,” is illustrated with proper French flavor by Fred Marcellino, who won a Caldecott Honor for the book.  The youngest son inherits nothing but a cat, but what a cat it is!  Armed with a pair of boots and a sack, rascally Puss proceeds to make his master’s fortune.  How Marcellino manages to make the cat dominate each page while remaining truly cat-sized is a miracle of the illustrator’s art.

    Clare Huchet Bishop was only eleven in 1944, when France was occupied by the Nazis.  In “Twenty and Ten,” she tells the true story of how she and her nineteen classmates, led by their teacher, agreed to hide ten orphaned Jewish children in their school, sharing their limited rations and vowing not to breathe a word to anyone.

    One afternoon when their teacher was away, the Nazis came.  The Jewish children rushed off to hide in a nearby cave, and the remaining children endured hours of interrogation by the Nazi soldiers before their unwavering denials forced the soldiers to give up at last.  Simply told for readers nine and up, this is a short book notable for its humor and its humanity.

    A ten-year-old boy who’s stuck in a colorless routine finds his life turned upside down in Suzy Morgenstern’s “Secret Letters from 0 to 10.”  When Victoria and her 13 exuberant brothers move in next door, they introduce ten-year-old Ernest to the joys of everything from holding a baby to tasting new food at the supermarket.  Victoria is clearly a force of nature, but her influence on Ernest is all for the good.  In the end, she gives Ernest the courage to embrace life in a way that is, despite the author’s American origins, supremely French.   


First published, in slightly different form, in the Free Lance-Star on July 13, 2010.