From Brown Bear to Betsy-Tacy

One of the things I enjoy about raising Minette in a different country than the one I grew up in is discovering beloved children’s books that had not crossed my path before. In my family books have always mattered, including children’s books. My mother has always had a keen eye for meaningful stories, original writing, and beautiful pictures. I treasure the collection of books she accumulated for my brother and me. Some of them have made it to our American home. Some others await us at my parents’ place in France. Wherever they are, reading them again and again with Minette brings me a sense of plenitude that almost nothing compares to.

A few of my own children’s books are translated American or English classics, like Max et les Maximonstres (Max and the Wild Things), Charlie et la Chocolaterie, or La petite Maison dans la prairie — no need to translate back the last two titles, I guess. But living here has brought many more gems into our life. When Minette was younger, her favorites included Eric Carle’s The Little Caterpillar and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Margaret Brown’s Good Night Moon, and Don Freeman’s Corduroy. Then came the delectable Doctor Seuss books, which Appa had introduced me to early on in our relationship.

These last two years have been big on chapter books. We read them at bedtime. We started with Milly, Molly, Mandy, a lovely early 20th century English story set in a picture-perfect village. Quite fittingly, that book was discovered by my mother during one of my parents’ travels in America. Then we moved on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the whole Little House in the Prairie series, which I then read in English for the first time of my life. As I kept exploring, I came across the Ramona collection, an instant hit with Minette. I am so impressed with Beverly Cleary’s writing. Her talent for telling the timeless story of an ordinary family and exploring the complex feelings every growing child goes through with a such a warm, light touch is truly remarkable.

Our reading journey has brought up other classic series, such as Sydney Taylor’s A One of A Kind Family, the lively story of a Jewish American family in early 20th century New York and, more recently, Maud Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series, set in early 20th century small-town Minnesota, which we have just finished — skipping the last two books that take the heroine to adulthood and which I am sure Minette will enjoy reading herself later on. Betsy-Tacy tells the story of Betsy from age 5 through her early twenties. Vivacious Betsy is a lovely, but far from perfect, girl modeled closely on the author. She has many friends, including her dearest Tacy, and enjoys her comfortable middle-class life a lot but she also has doubts, at times, and one steady ambition: she wants to become a writer. The story is joyful and inspiring but what stands out, here again, is the writing. Evocative and bursting with life.

Reading American stories to my daughter is a treat but it is also a way of discovering and exploring many facets of this, her home and my host country, together. I can only be grateful that there are so many outstanding books to take us along that path. As I keep reading to her I am also very aware that my years as her personal chapter book reader are counted. She’ll soon fly with her own wings…

5 Replies to “From Brown Bear to Betsy-Tacy

  1. Marianne, After reading this post, I am struck by the fact that you’ve been reading to Minette in English. What made you decide to read with her in English when you speak only French to her? Why not read to her in French?

    1. I do read French books to Minette! But I think it’s fair she should enjoy stories in English too. She was born and is growing up in the USA so Good Night Moon is somehow a birthright. I also feel that the choice of French chapter books and book series for young children may not be as rich, with some notable exceptions. One of the French chapter books of my childhood I want to share with Minette in a year or so is Sans Famille by Hector Malot, the suspenseful, sometimes heartbreaking but eventually uplifting, story of an orphan boy.

  2. Thanks for this reminder of a past pleasure with our now grown boys, with whom we did family book readings even after they could have read magical series by C.S. Lewis and of course Lord of the Rings themselves. We’d all take turns reading and listening. I remember reading Harry Potter to a son who’d just had his wisdom teeth out and continuing the series on vacation with the whole family via books on tape, a shared family time in the car while also in the wider world of imagination.

  3. Marianne, Do you have a list of French children’s books that you loved as a child or read to Minette? I am going to France soon & would love to pick up some French Classics for my 6 & 7 year old granddaughters.

    1. For that age range, and assuming your granddaughters can read some French, I would recommend Grand Loup & Petit Loup by Nadine Brun-Cosme and Olivier Tallec, Mon Arbre à secrets by Olivier Ka and Martine Perrin, books by Anne Crausaz — Premiers Printemps in particular, and books by Grégoire Solotareff — Toi grand et moi petit, for example, is a beautiful reflection on relationships and growing up. Minette and I also love Kididoc books, about all sorts of subjects. When your granddaughters’ French reading skills allow, by all means introduce them to Tintin albums, the Petit Nicolas series by Goscinny and Sempé, and Robert Escarpit’s Les Contes de la Saint-Glinglin, all treasured pleasures of my own childhood.

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