Oui, Oui, Oui, All the Way Home
By ADAM GOPNIK
Published: May 16, 2004
We are assured routinely by the French-allergic, or the merely French-skeptical,
that the clichés of Paris and France are no longer ''operative,'' as
they used to say in the Nixon years -- no longer vital or persuasive or even
entirely decent. The new France is a bleak land of bitter people, and if there
are to be children's books about it, it seems, they should show old women sweltering
all alone in the summer heat while their indifferent, intellectual children
write hard words about America, doubting the divinity of Donald Rumsfeld and
maybe even Dr. Seuss.
Yet here we are, deep in the soured new millennium, and three illustrated picture books meant for small patriotic Americans pop up for the spring, all bearing the Eiffel Tower on their covers, and two of them taking for their sole and radiant subject the Glorious Cliché, the Wonderful Place -- the City of Light, all lit up. The Luxembourg Gardens, the tower itself, the Place Vendome, even the Folies-Bergere -- all the clichéd scenes, or, if you prefer, exotic metaphors of Paris are re-presented once again for children, in the same spirit, and sometimes in the same color tones, as they were more than 60 years ago in Bemelmans's peerless ''Madeline'' books.
When a parent reads these books out loud, say to a 4-year-old with a certain attachment to Paris, it is as though the lights had never gone out on Old Europe, or at least as though Rupert Murdoch had never left Australia. The hold of the cliché images of Paris, or the metaphors, or whatever they are, is so intense, in fact, that they intrude even where they do not quite belong -- perhaps of imaginative necessity, perhaps for more sordid commercial reasons.
In ''The Cat Who Walked Across France,'' by Kate Banks, for instance, the gray-and-white cat's journey, motivated by the unexpected death of her owner, takes her from Rouen up in Normandy all the way down to St. Tropez -- but she stops in Paris long enough to have her picture taken, so to speak, in front of the Eiffel Tower for the cover of her book.
This lonely and determined cat, who puts one in mind of Kipling's solitary cat walking down its allee of trees, is a heroine grown-ups are likely to find especially pleasing for purely visual reasons. Georg Hallensleben's paintings of her trip have at once a poster-paint Fauve simplicity and a Vuillard-like melancholy; his water-blue skies and sad blue moats in the Loire Valley are particularly plaintive and memorable. But truthfully, the book's subject seemed rather slow and steady to at least one young ex-Parisenne.
On the other hand, ''Crepes by Suzette,'' written and illustrated by Monica Wellington, though it may seem even to the believing adult almost too brazenly promiscuous with the familiar Parisian images, speaks to a child's heart, or stomach, since its subject is the eternal one of eating pancakes.
Rendered in a lively melange of Hockneyish photomontaged backgrounds and bright, simple cartoonlike foreground figures, Wellington's compositions usually turn out to be quietly witty paraphrases of some classic French pictures -- the children on the lawn of the Luxembourg, for instance, are Matisse's dancing nymphs, in Bonpoint dresses.
The book tells of one day in the life of Suzette, a crepe-making soubrette, who pushes her cart and pan throughout Paris, making snacks filled with fresh fruit for mothers and children and postmen and painters. (The postman, of course, is van Gogh's Roulin, and the mother and child are based on a painting by Mary Cassatt.)
Even as a child cries out for another reading, the parental objections rumble inside. The crepes in Paris, after all, are served up not by apple-cheeked Norman girls but, for the most part, by hard-working North African immigrants, who do not shop at a central market for their fillings any more than New York pretzel vendors go on a trip to the farmer's market for their salt. (Parisians seem to get them instead from some centralized chestnut-cream depot.)
Any apple-cheeked Suzette who rolled her cart into the Luxembourg Gardens on a whim to sell crepes to the children there would be quickly tossed out by the permanent resident crepe makers, who do not suffer rivals (or customers, for that matter) gladly. And the little girls dancing on the lawn would be told to stop dancing on the lawn in a nanosecond by a surveillant who sits in the center of the gardens. Still, the book delights, and it is instructive: children learn the geography of Paris, and are even given, at the end, a recipe for making crepes from scratch.
''A Spree in Paree,'' written and illustrated by Catherine Stock, is nearly as unreal, or fantastic, and just as appealing. Its subject is the flight from the countryside into the city by a determined and bored gang of French farm animals, who drag their not entirely unwilling farmer along with them.
We see the goats tasting petunias in the Luxembourg Gardens (and wonder again what in the world happened to the usually omnipresent surveillants); the cows gazing at Poussin and Claude in the Louvre (whose grand staircase has been rather disconcertingly shortened for the purposes of the page layout); and the whole gang having dinner at an unnamed three-star restaurant (which has black-tie waiters and a view of the Eiffel Tower; Lassere?).
The drawings of the animals packed into the car, eager to get to Paris, and of the farmer examining the bill at the restaurant at the end of the day, are both worth the price of admission. And Stock has a lovely and a lively eye for Parisian detail; so simple and familiar a thing as the round end of Notre Dame is done with considerable sprezzaturra.
And yet one is also struck, once again, by the improbabilities, the dominance of accepted imagery over new discovery. The men and women on the quais in Stock's Paris wear hats and berets, as people did a half-century ago, and the whole animal gang visits the Folies-Bergere -- there's no question that the sheep would like it, but, these days, would they go?
What we are showing our little ones, then, is less a reimagining of the city than a recycling of its clichés -- and yet one says that only to withdraw it a moment later. Do these things not exist? Are they not beautiful to contemplate and worth depicting again? The test of a depiction, after all, is not its originality but its intensity. One of the joys of children's books, and the great buried realm of illustration of which they are a principality, is that they need not in any way be novel to be good. Bemelmans's own vision was made of Fauve materials, 30 years old when he touched them.
Whatever ambivalence we may feel in the face of these books is drowned out by the pleasure we take from them. If a small whitecap of censure, a little hand-clap of exasperation, rise at the relentlessness of the familiar imagery, perpetuated in the face of change and novelty and exhaustion, a sense of gratitude still rises that these Parisian panoramas are renewed for our children. They are not, after all, imaginary; they are merely, in a sense at once large and literal, illustrative, embodiments of an idea that does not need to exist in the world to persist in our heads.
The illustrated book, child of the early 19th century, of Blake and the Brothers Grimm, exists after all not to show us the world as it is but to realize and give form to romantic ideas and romantic illusions, and what is life, or Paris, or childhood, without those? The recipe at the end of ''Crepes by Suzette,'' by the way, is, whether covered with real French chestnut cream or honest American jam, delicious.
Adam Gopnik is the author of ''Paris to the Moon.'' His first book for children, ''The King in the Window,'' will be published next year.