Sunday, March 2, 2014

Vive La Difference?

Readers of “Bringing Up Bébé,” the best-selling book by Pamela Druckerman about the hands-off French way of raising kids compared to our American “helicoptering” parenting style, won’t be surprised to know that the French also have a different view of what constitutes an appropriate children’s book. Just as the French have a more laissez-faire attitude to parenting, they also don’t worry so much about whether a children’s book has a happy ending – something that is pretty much de rigueur in the United States. It also goes without saying that nudity is no big deal in French children’s books, given the relaxed Gallic attitude toward the unclothed human body.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to read about a French politician who recently attacked a French children’s picture book, “Tous à poil!” (“All in the Buff”), saying that the nudity in it made his “blood run cold.” True, it’s unlikely that “Tous à poil!, co-authored by Claire Franek and Marc Daniau and illustrated by Daniau, would ever be published in the United States, given that its pages are illustrated with humorous drawings of people in different jobs – police officers, teachers, etc. – and other folks ditching their clothes in preparation for a joyous run into the sea.

According to an article by John Lichfield in The Independent, a British newspaper, “Tous à poil!” was written to show children that humans come in all shapes, and that they shouldn’t be obsessed with having a perfect body. But Jean-Francois Copé, the current leader of the center-right UMP political party in France, contends that the book leads children to disrespect authority figures, given that the illustrations show them wearing nothing but their birthday suits. Copé also argues that “Tous à poil!” is part of an effort by the current Socialist government to create a genderless society.

It appears that Copé’s remarks, which Lichfield says were “widely mocked in the French media,” didn’t convince his fellow French citizens. Since Copé’s outburst, the book’s sales have gone through the roof, Lichfield says. "‘Tous à poil!’ had sold only 1,000 copies before Mr Copé's comments on television made it sound like a blend of the Marquis de Sade and Karl Marx for five-year-olds. Sales have since rocketed and the book is now the second best-selling French-language book on Amazon.” (That was February 16; as of March 2, the book was No. 122 of all French-language books, and No. 3 among picture books, on Amazon France).

Writing for the Comic Books Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), librarian Maren Williams notes that the controversy began when Copé “brandished” a copy of “Tous à poil!” during a television appearance. Until then, Williams said, the book was little known, just part of a “rather obscure bibliography, compiled by a regional nonprofit, of children’s books that fight gender stereotypes. The entire bibliography is linked from a Ministry of Education website–but it’s been there since fellow UMP member (Nicolas) Sarkozy was in power” (as the previous French president).

Daniau, the co-author and illustrator of  “Tous à poil!", has found the whole affair ludicrous. In an article published in the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur (and translated by Williams in her article for the CBLDF), Daniau said the purpose was both to demystify nudity and to counter the Photoshopped images of bodies that children see in the media. “If we follow the thought process of the UMP boss, then we shouldn’t take children to museums either,” Daniau observed. “No one is shocked by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!”

"Neighbors in the buff!"
 There’s apparently a political subtext to all of this, and it has to do with the idea of “gender theory” and the French right’s contention that the Socialist government is trying to break down traditional gender roles. As Lichfield writes, all of the ruckus over “Tous à poil!” “would be mildly amusing if the remarks were not part of a campaign – partly sincere, partly cynical – to radicalise the political debate in France along moral and cultural "identity" lines. Mr Copé was trying, clumsily, to hitch himself to a bandwagon launched in recent months by ultra-Catholic conservatives and by the extreme nationalist right.”

For Francophiles like myself, this whole issue has been just fascinating to follow. I’ve always been interested in the contrast between the cultural sensibility behind our children’s books and some of the ones published in France. Examples of French children’s books like these would certainly give American parents pause, if not incite absolute hysteria. So what’s especially stunning in the case of “Tous à poil!” is that Copé seems to be taking his cues from those in the United States who, as Williams writes for the CBLDF, want to ban books like Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” because the young protagonist appears blissfully naked in an illustration or two. But here’s one last, crazy plot twist, according to Lichfield: French conservative politicians actually consider gender theory “to be an American progressive plot” that has resulted is having books like “Tous à poil!” included on school booklists in the first place.

The controversy over Copé's remarks has continued. In the latest salvo against the politician, a group of French booksellers recently posed nude (except for strategically-placed books) to show their support for “Tous à poil!” and authors Franek and Daniau. Now that's French! Vive la difference!

Note: Thanks to the American Library Association’s “American Libraries Direct” weekly e-newletter for the initial links to the story. For those who, like me, read French, here are some links to French coverage of the issue. Here, for example, is an article in the respected French daily Le Monde; here’s a Le Monde blogger on the controversy; here’s an update from radio station  in which Copé states that he is no regrets about raising the issue; and here are the comments by Tous à poil!” author/illustrator Daniau in Le Nouvel Observateur.


  1. I can't wait to read it! Thanks for this review...

    1. Thanks, Joy! I'm definitely ordering it for our growing collection of French children's books at the library. I'll put a reserve on it for you when it arrives!