From vengeful rabbits to playing with guns, the picture books given to French children have a reputation for being uncompromisingly scary – further proof that the French do not coddle les enfants, even at story time.
While it’s true that the French embrace topics and styles that more timid Anglophone picture book publishers would reject, right now, France is producing some of the finest books for children in the world. The best – and there are many too choose from – are visually sophisticated, quirky, funny and daring. And at the Salon du livre et de presse jeunesse in Montreuil, which I was fortunate to visit in November 2014, you can see it all.
When it comes to promoting of books and reading there is nothing in Australia like the SLPJ. This bustling six-day program of book market, exhibitions, author appearances, panels, debates, projections and more attracted 160,000 visitors, most of them children and teenagers. Celebrating its 30th year in 2014, the Salon brings plenty of attention to children’s book at exactly the right time of year and does so with a mighty bang.
Every publisher worthy of their colophon exhibits here: the big like Flammarion, Gallimard and Casterman (yes, publishers of Tintin); the edgy independents like Editions Thiery Magnier and Editions Fourmis Rouges; and icons like les ecoles des loisirs (celebrating 50 years in 2015) and Albin Michel Jeunesse. There are specialist art book publishers (yes, for children) and specialist human rights publishers (yes, also for children); and the national library promotes its programs for professionals. This is the epicenter of French book publishing for children and teenagers.
Authors appearing included Quentin Blake (also featured in large and beautiful exhibition), Meg Rosoff, Cathy Cassidy and local heroes including Pénélope Bagieu and Timothée de Fombelle, author of the brilliant Toby Alone. Hundreds of authors appear, and even more illustrators, since having your book ‘signed’ with original artwork, une dedicace is de rigeur.
But there is something just as important as the commercial and cultural side to the Salon, and which gives the event its soul: that is the connection to community. The strong relationship between the Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse, the local government, the national government and the publishing industry that makes the event so successful. Australian festivals of all artforms could learn a lot from this kind of partnership.
Montreuil is in the east of Paris and just beyond the peripherique, that sometimes real, sometimes imaginary line that marks the start of the banlieue, the suburbs. The Seine-St Denis local government, which supports the SLJP, is among the most left-wing districts in Paris. It’s home to many thousands of Malian migrants (it’s sometimes called little Bamako), with more than 100 languages spoken.
“Montreuil is always a fight”, one foreign rights agent confided to me. What she meant is, that it is always a fight to get respect, to get the resources, to get the media coverage for this major celebration. In director Sylvie Vassolo, the Salon has a leader prepared to stand up for children’s books. Politics is in her blood and her training: prior to leading SLPJ, Sylvie Vassolo headed the national union of Communist students.
Children and teenagers arrive in school groups, or with childcare centres, after-school recreation and youth clubs, and with parents. Thousands of parents and children pay 6 euros (about $9) admission and receive a 4 euro book voucher (children are free). They can be seen exploring, reading, discussing, buying and delighting in the hundreds of stalls, events, exhibitions, book signings. Outside it might be chilly, but the scenes on the three floors of a scruffy convention centre are hectic.
If you want to know more about French picture books then there are few better ways than to plunge in to the festivals and book salons. France is remarkable for the diversity and number of events to promote reading. Even a small town will have its book festival (fete du livre). Here I have listed some of the larger ones, including the main festival for comics and graphic novels (bande dessinée). Most of these links are to French websites.
Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse is the essential showcase for French children's and YA books. Held at the end of November, SLPJ kicks off the Christmas book season, and brings together everyone who matters: kids, families, publishers, creators, educators. An extraordinary event.
Etonnants Voyageurs - held in beautiful St Malo, Brittany, this festival with a strong international agenda includes children's, youth and bande dessinée. Plus exhibitions and a huge book pavilion.
Quai des Bulles - annual bande dessinée festival of with a strong exhibition program and book pavilion.
South Kensington Kids Festival at l'Institut français in London is a unique festival. All events are in English and feature the very best illustrators and writers from France and the UK. It's a bold, creative program.
La joie par les livres - Offering a array of quality publications and events for professionals, the LJPL is a national centre for children's and youth literature. Based at the Mitterrand library, LJPL is well worth a visit if you are in Paris.
Ricochet - dedicated to the promotion of francophone children's literature. Encyclopaedic.
IF Verso - a database and network for French books in translation. An agency of l'Institut français.
The vibrant French children's publishing scene owes something to the country's independent booksellers. In France it is illegal to cut the price of a book below 5%. I know, it sounds incredible, but that was life in Australia and the UK until the removal of the net book price. While it chews up publishers and bookshops elsewhere, in France Amazon cannot undercut domestic bookshops. Some might say that this means 'the consumer' gets a bad deal or is getting ripped off by the publishers and bookstores. More likely is that smaller publishers and start-ups can compete in the market, rather than surrender their margins to the big guy(s).
Independent bookshops, which are often best at hand-selling the interesting, unusual and unique titles, aren't crushed under the wheels. Chain stores (or supermarkets), can't undercut small businesses on price.
Sounds awfully sensible, don't you think?
You can help keep a healthy book ecology by supporting your independent bookseller.
In Australia, I recommend:
The Little Bookroom - children's book specialist who do mail order, and are passionate and know up-to-the-minute. Also do mail order.