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The Lion and the Unicorn 29.2 (2005) 171-189

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Radical Trends in French Picturebooks

Although their impact in the English-speaking world has been slight, French picturebooks have been highly regarded for their innovation and creativity in recent years as evidenced, for instance, by the lists of prize winners at the Bologna Book Fair. In 2003, two Bologna Ragazzi awards, bestowed by an international jury to books "on the basis of their creativity, educational value and artistic design" (Bologna Book Fair website) went to French picturebooks. In 2004, the Bologna jury honored French quality again by giving one Ragazzi award to La Grande Question, created by Wolf Erlbruch for the French publisher Etre, while three other picturebooks received honorable mentions. The seminar I was invited to lead at CLISS, part of the Radical Visual strand, focused on texts that challenge established ways of creating and reading visual narratives, and explored the particular cultural and institutional conditions which are enabling innovative—or radical—forms to flourish in France.

At CLISS, where I had an hour and a half to introduce books and additional time for those present to handle and explore them, I worked with approximately two dozen examples. It is impractical to attempt to cover so many highly visual texts here, so I have concentrated on three that show well the adventurousness of the best French picturebook makers and publishers, and from which many features of a postmodern aesthetics emerge. With remarkable boldness and in spite of their postmodern characteristics (which can be challenging even to experienced readers), the books I have selected are marketed for very young children: those usually put in the category of the "pré-lecteurs," the prereaders, preschoolers, or whatever "pre" is used to signify inability to read. In their conviction that such young children are as capable and worthy of witty and demanding books as any adult reader, these works typify the radical trend explored in the CLISS session. [End Page 171]

In Search of an Ideal Balance Between Market and Creation

In France, the privileging of the book within the general market has been enshrined in the Lang Law, which has been regulating book prices since 1981: "The book is not a mere commodity like any other: it is an intellectually-inspired creation which should not be exclusively subjected to the market" (Journal Officiel 5). In this spirit, the state has deployed various measures aimed at promoting creative publishing through specific loans and grants distributed to publishers, authors, and translators. Similarly, several departmental councils (Conseils Généraux) and boroughs have decided to support publishing projects for picturebooks aimed at very young children, whose publication would otherwise have been unlikely because of their innovative form and high cost. For example, in one notable Paris suburb, the Val-de-Marne, since 1990 the council has given one picturebook (which is also distributed free to libraries, council nurseries, and family health centers) to each of the 19,000 babies born in the area. Because of the council's support, special market conditions attend the publication of the Val-de-Marne baby gift book. For instance, with pre-publication sales of 21,000 copies, the publisher (who is selected by the artist whom the council chooses to create the book) can considerably reduce production costs and so the final price, further stimulating sales. In this way, public sector organizations and local administrations can work with the most creative authors and publishers to resist market forces. Moreover, by addressing these high-quality picturebooks to very young children (thus appealing to whole families) they also help to fight cultural exclusion.

Although such projects involve an extremely small number of titles compared with the whole production of picturebooks in France, this policy has demonstrably influenced the general quality of the sector. With such support, innovative literature for very young children reaches an extremely diverse audience. One of the picturebooks I have chosen to discuss here, Tout un monde (2000), is already regarded as a classic in France and is now available in seven foreign countries (including the UK). Since...


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