Do you know the feeling of surprise that dissolves into interest and eventually into paralysis of the will to turn the page when you stumble upon a particularly striking image in a magazine? Maybe it’s a dirty image, but not necessarily. Maybe it’s just a suggestive one. One with a smidgen of the stuff that Marilyn Monroe exuded. At any rate, you are captivated for a moment, or a few moments. You don’t hear whoever might have been talking to you before. You don’t notice that your bus has pulled up and that people are pushing by you to get on it. Until the moment passes, you are helpless in a way. Absorbed.
This has never happened to me when I was looking at a children’s book. Until last Wednesday, that is, when I was drawn to the children’s section of Dijon’s Librarie Privat — probably because I am surrounded by 223 French kids three days a week these days.
I had no particular intent, since the only children’s books I read in my classes are books in English — The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Brown Bear Brown Bear, for example. Maybe I was just a little curious to compare. And boy did I get more than I bargained for. After perusing a few names I can’t remember, I picked up a name I’ll never forget: Papa maman bébé by Anaïs Vaugelade. The concept was simple, for kids just learning to read. Each two-page spread was like the cover: three images, one designated to represent Papa, one for Maman, and a little one for Bébé. Papa Melon, Maman Orange, Bébé Citron. Papa Chaussure (a decorated leather city shoe), Maman Botte (a chic leather tall boot) Bébé Pantoufle (a soft little slipper).
Charmingly uncomplicated images outlined in black kept me turning the pages, along with the obvious French culture symbols — like those ubiquitous tall boots I mentioned. Even the children’s books are so French, I thought…right before I turned the page and my thought process took a temporary hit.
There before me — how I wish I could find a picture of the page online! — was Papa Caca, Maman Pipi, and Bébé Prout.
For all those who need a little help with the translation, that’s Papa Caca, Maman Peepee, and Baby Fart.
There I was, staring at a charmingly uncomplicated turd, a charmingly uncomplicated pool of urine, and a charmingly uncomplicated little baby cloud of gas.
Surprise: Did this author really draw and color excrement? Did she really put her drawings in a children’s book and label them Dad, Mom, Baby?
Interest: Yes she did. And oh, my, gosh…that is so French.
Paralysis: I cannot turn the page.
When I finally pried myself away — after checking all the other pages for similar scandals — I walked out of the bookstore feeling less offended than I probably looked. If there is one thing I can say about the French (okay, everyone knows I have a lot to say…) it is that they are very frank — with their coworkers, with their friends, with their family, and (especially) with their kids. It’s something I appreciate about them because it’s not always a given in the United States. The French always “tell it like it is” and aren’t as bothered by political correctness or hypersensitivity. In the states we call people who eat too much “MacDo” overweight. Here, they’re straight up gros. I saw a sign in my school today identifying children with autism as “handicapés. No sugar-coating necessary: the French aren’t offended by the word “handicap” — among others. And, they don’t have a problem with poop and pee in kids’ books.
But that’s only one side of the coin. The best part about their straightforward, no nonsense approach? When you receive a compliment — which happens rarely, by American standards — or gushing support (maybe in the form of an American-style hug instead of les bises on the cheeks?) you know it’s real. You know you’ve earned it. You’re accepted into the club.
Sort of. There are conditions.
One of those being that you won’t be shocked by what might be found in the pages of children’s literature, for example.