A Critical History of French Children’s Literature
Volume 2: 1830-Present
by Penny Brown (Author)
This second volume of Penny Brown’s critical history is a densely written academic tome without illustration: a somewhat daunting read, then. But what treasures lie within for the intrepid reader. The period covered in this study follows on from the age when books for children were primarily didactic, ‘the old-fashioned moral tales’ of Berquin and Mme de Genlis. Beginning with the post-revolutionary, post- Napoleonic period which heralded economic expansion in France, greater access to education meant a new market for children’s literature. The study ends at the threshold of the 21st century with books dealing with issues for young adult readers, including the Holocaust, sexuality, AIDS, and relationships within families.
The mid-to-late 19th century saw a resurgence of the fairy tale, a rise in adventure stories by authors such Alexandre Dumas père, and exotic Robinsonnades. The 19th century also witnessed the development of new forms such as periodical literature for children and the rise of science fiction, especially in the novels of Jules Verne. The progression shown in this study is one of appropriation of older forms of children’s literature reimagined for a new age, and the repositioning of the child at the centre of the narratives. Imports from English-language countries have had a profound impact on 20th century children’s themes.
The chapter on the role of images, so important thanks to the development of technical processes, suffers from the lack of illustrative material. It deals with one phenomenon of modern French language cultural history which has been successfully exported, the bande dessinée or cartoon strip, devoting space to Tintin and Astérix, and others less well known to an anglophone audience.
This is a worthwhile study, offering many insights, it examines children's literature in French in the context of its time and place, and draws comparisons with international English-language models.