Of all the books that a person will read, children’s books undoubtedly have the most lasting impact. They shape one’s personality, goals, and belief systems. French children are exposed to a variety of books early on, but it’s safe to say that only a handful of them define the French upbringing. To this day, reminiscing these stories brings joyful memories of a happier time.
These French children’s books and stories changed the way I viewed the world.
1. Ratus et ses amis, J. and J. Guion (Ratus and His Friends)Image Source: Del campe
“Ratus” is the book that French children use to learn how to read. Teachers would hand out Ratus image cards to reward model students. We’d all be thrilled after adding a new card to our collection.
The book follows the adventures of a facetious green rat, Ratus, and his friendly neighbors, Mina and Marou, their uncle Belo, and their friendly dog Victor. Ratus likes to eat cheese, often cheats at games, and gets lectured when his unfair behavior gets exposed. Designed to teach children reading and writing, it features simple stories that are all accompanied by colorful images.
In one of the stories, Ratus becomes a circus star and uses his friends to showcase his magic skills. All ends well, especially considering how much Ratus loves the attention.
What I learned: This book developed my taste for reading. Besides teaching me to decipher obscure characters like adults do, I discovered that reading enabled me to be a part of a whole new world, and I was forever hooked.
2. Fantômette, Georges Chaulet (Fantomette)Image Source: Wonder Book
The Fantômette series follows the adventures of a mysterious, strong superhero girl. In her various missions, she avenges the underdogs by taking justice into her own hands.
She conducts all her good deeds masked so no one knows her identity, not even her friends Ficelle and Boussolle (lit. Thread and Compass). Readers are invited to discover who she is as they read the story. However, you’ll learn that her real name is Françoise Dupont, a brilliant school girl who speaks multiple languages and can even read lips.
Over 52 volumes, she encounters recurring enemies, including the Masque d’Argent (Silver Mask), a blood-thirsty scientist who, after a botched experiment, had his face permanently covered in silver. The books are so iconic that they were turned into a TV series, an animated TV series, a comic, and a theater play.
What I learned: Schoolgirls can be badasses, too. Fantômette did wonders to popularize the image of strong, confident children and girls. This certainly accounts for why I don’t respond well to the m0dern women empowerment rhetoric: I’ve never internalized the idea that women were ever capable of less.
3. Martine à la ferme, Gilbert Delahaye and Marcel Marlier (Martine at the Farm)Image Source: Del Campe
Every French child, boy or girl, grows up reading one of the 60 or so Martine books. And for the right reasons: easy to read and focused on a righteous girl living a simple life in the countryside. These are the kinds of stories your parents would want you to read.
My parents were huge Martine fans, and I grew up with every single book of the series. My playground friends’ parents, too, seemed to share my parents’ belief that youth shouldn’t be spoiled by evil. They too would gift me the Martine titles they thought may be missing from my shelves. I often ended up with duplicates, as was likely the case for every French kid.
The most popular and first book of the series is Martine à la Ferme, where Martine visits her cousin Jean-Pierre at the farm. There, she discovers the animals, including ducks and rabbits. This book was made into a TV series, an animated TV series, a comic, and a theater play.
What I learned: Reading this book stirred in me a short-lived desire to embrace a career as a farmer. By all means, this book is where I learned to love and respect nature and Life in its diversity.
4. Les Contes du chat perché, Marcel Aymé (The Wonderful Farm)Image Source: bienvenu chez sab
A classic of French literature, this is the first “serious” book French children learn to read. Endearing and often funny, it was written for “children aged 4 to 75.”
It features 17 short tales based on the adventures of two girls, Delphine and Marinette, who live on a farm where all the animals can speak. They side with the animals against the adults, who’ve grown to become cold and cutting, especially the girls’ parents.
Instead of showing them love and treating both girls and animals as intelligent beings, adults are portrayed as being utilitarian. This contrasts with the girl’s point of view, who treat the animals like real people.
What I learned: Forget literature, this book taught me to read instructions. The book is often split into two different editions for this book, Blue Tales and Red Tales, and they each feature different stories. Of course, I didn’t get the one required by my then primary school teacher. I was very embarrassed when I got back to school and it served me as a life lesson: it’s all in the details!
5. Tout l’Univers, Hachette (All the Universe)Image Source: Le Dessine
Tout l’Univers is a kid-friendly encyclopedia, with colorful drawings and explanations about everything that a 7 to 12-year old needs to know to play catch up, including history, sciences, geography, and more.
My mother, who had high hopes for her children, bought the entire set when my sister and I were respectively 3 and 2 years old. The books were left untouched for the longest of time. But when I opened my first Tout l’Univers book, I couldn’t stop.
Elements are introduced by themes, with an index and various appendixes at the end of each volume. I don’t remember vast discrepancies between the books and actual facts, but everything was simplified. Especially when describing parts of French history, the books were more epic novels and lowbrow encyclopedia. The above image should give you idea of why.
What I learned: I learned I had missed out on a lot of things, being born in 1987. Yet, reading the books helped me get a head start at school. I’d always have my hand up when teachers would ask a question, and became effectively convinced that I was knowledgeable about the world. Wisdom crushed that belief.
6. Les Contes, Charles Perrault (Fairy Tales)Image Source: Met Museum
French children grow up reading some of the best fairy tales ever written, and that’s because they were written, well, in French.
To further national pride, we also learn from a young age that Charles Perrault, the French writer behind every child’s favorite stories, including “Cinderella,” “Little Riding Hood,” or “Puss in Boots,” actually pioneered the genre, and may have influenced the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. Yet, a deeper study of literature and anthropology revealed these tales are as old as mankind.
One of my favorite stories by Perrault is “The Sleeping Beauty,” which doesn’t need an introduction. It tells the story of a princess who was cursed at birth and falls into a century-old sleep until a prince breaks the spell with a kiss. Disney wasn’t the only one to adapt the story, which inspired most recently TV shows including “Once Upon A Time” and the movie “Maleficient”.
What I learned: I learned to imagine and dream big. It didn’t matter how darkly adults would paint the world, mine was filled with magic.
7. Le Petit Prince, St Exupéry (The Little Prince)Image Source: E book
This charming book is easy to read, but is deep in meaning. I honestly missed a lot of its messages when I first read it. As a child, I read it quite literally.
To me, it was the very straight-forward story of a stranded prince who met a fallen pilot in the desert. I remember discussing the book with my parents and teachers who all thought that this was the best book ever. After I read the book again, I understood what the fuss was about.
In all honesty, I didn’t get it then: the book lacked the vivid details of the epic or fantasy novels I’d favor as a child, and took place in the most austere of settings – the desert.
What I learned: I didn’t understand why adults were so “blocked” at the time, so this book (particularly the scene with the boa constrictor and how it’s perceived differently by children and adults) confirmed to me that adults and children really think differently. As a greek poet once said, “if a recent newborn could speak, he/she would teach the world timeless lessons.”
I felt very sad at the time that, unlike children, their world lacked joy and creativity. This is when I promised myself never to lose that.
8. Fables, La FontaineImage Source: bedeteqhe
Every French child learns several of La Fontaine’s Fables: they’re quite verbose (and most children don’t understand some of the words), but are incredibly colorful and inspiring. We learn to memorize them and recite them by heart in front of the entire class, and the teacher would grade us.
I loved Poésie (Poetry) class, not just because I was doing well, but because we’d get to draw the Fable in question opposite the verses in our Poetry notebook. It forced us to understand the story and be inspired to turn the words into first mental, then actual images.
As a child, it wasn’t La Fontaine’s literary genius that made an impact or his ability to criticize the flaws of human character. It was the fact that the fables recreated a universe where friendly animals were the heroes.
“Cicada and Ant” is one of the most famous fables. It tells the story of a profligate cicada and a frugal, hard-working ant. Instead of saving food in the summer, the cicada prefers to play, only to find herself with nothing when the cold winter hits.
What I learned: La Fontaine’s Fables taught me a lot of life lessons, especially not to trust shrewd, sycophantic foxes (“Crow and Fox“) or to never underestimate even the most unassuming opponent (“Lion and Rat“)
9. Astérix le Gaulois, Uderzo and Goscini (Asterix the Gaul)Image Source: Del Campe
This is arguably the most well-known French comics worldwide, but for French people, Astérix is a happy reminder of their past childhood. Using expressive text and content and partially based on History, the series teaches French children about the evil Romans, the honest Gauls, and that grilled boar is a supreme delicacy.
In Astérix, Romans are portrayed as ruthless invaders who will not stop until they’ve conquered all Gaul. It glorifies France’s resistance spirit, represented by Asterix and his fellow villagers, who, in spite of their differences (and frequent fights), show a united front to remain independent. By their side is Panoramix the Druid, the maker of the magic potion that gives the villagers their strength in combat.
The first book of the series introduces the characters and their fight against the Romans, portrayed as incredibly weak in the fight. The villagers eventually earn the respect of Rome, who makes it a point to continue the fight until they surrender.
What I learned: The book can be funny, filled with puns, neologisms, and funny portmanteau words that give Asterix its unique flavor and make it so hard to translate into another language.
10. Tom-Tom et Nana, Jacqueline Cohen and Bernadette Desprès (Tom-Tom and Nana)Image Source: France Loisirs
This children’s books follow the adventures of a facetious boy, Tom-Tom, and even his more devilish younger sister, Nana. Together with their friends, they drive their parents and teachers crazy, but have a lot of fun in the process.
Numerous volumes were written to cater to an ever-growing population of readers, and an animated TV series was even created. But it didn’t quite compare to the actual books, filled with fun images and lively, modern dialogs.
The books portrayed children as being strong and always a step ahead of adults. It’s probably what made them so popular. Storylines were simple and often revolved around the parents forbidding the kids to do something, and their taking action to disobey and do it anyway.
What I learned: It’s ok for children to behave like children, but be sure to have a plan and not get caught if you plan on doing something wrong.
11. La Belle et la bête, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (Beauty and the Beast)Image Source: Pinterest
This is the first modern version of Beauty and The Beast, and was written by an aristocrat who had heard the story from one of her maids in 1740 as she was traveling to America.
Children love fantasy stories filled with enchanted creatures and magic. This story delivers just that. Approachable for children and written with just enough details to help you envision the story, but not too much that you’d get bored with long descriptions, the book is about a prince who transforms into a beast after refusing to provide shelter to a sorcerer.
Living recluse in his castle, he must get a girl to love him or the spell will never be reversed.
What I learned: Love conquers all. The book also teaches you to not judge a book by its cover, and has instilled me a deep fear of karma.
12. Les Petites filles modèles, Comtesse de SégurImage Source: Consus France
This is one of the most popular and well-read books in France. Children know the story whether they’ve read it or not, either because their parents will read it to them or because they’ve watched the cartoon on TV.
The book, however, is incredibly interesting: it features plenty of dialogues that make it lively and easy to follow.
It’s about three girls who live peacefully and must learn to socialize with Sophie, a selfish girl who has become an orphan and has to live with her evil stepmother, Madame de Fichini. The girls start to understand that Sophie’s behavior is the result of Fichini’s cruelty and beatings. Eventually, the girls’ mothers decide to get Fichini to leave Sophie in their care.
What I learned: Children are often cruel to one another, and often that’s because they aren’t entirely happy. The book encouraged me to ask myself why certain people behaved the way they do, and to offer help if I felt that it was needed.
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