- Comme un million de papillons noirs by Laura Nsafou:How an Afrofeminist Picture Book Gave the Impetus to a Discussion about Inclusive Children's Literature in France
The need for inclusive children's and young adult (YA) literature in France has only recently started being discussed in mainstream spaces. The absence of inclusivity in children's literature has been a topic1 in the main journal about children's literature in December 2019 but no study on ethnic diversity in children's books has been done, and no broad movement like #WeNeedDiverseBooks2 has emerged. The traditional French model of universalism implicitly erases all collective identity other than the French one, making it difficult to raise the question of the needs of minority groups. Thus, for a long time, the only voices advocating the need for more inclusivity in children's literature were the lone ones of individual blogging parents or librarians. This changed when, in September 2017, a young author of Congolese and Martinique descent, Laura Nsafou, published the picture book Comme un million de papillons noirs. With this story celebrating nappy, textured hair and showing mainly Black characters, the need for racial and ethnic diversity in children's and YA literature suddenly became a topic in French mainstream media.
Before her fame as an author, Nsafou was already a well-established Afrofeminist blogger known as Mrs. Roots. Since 2013, her posts about the gender and race discrimination faced by Black women in France helped spread the ideas of Afrofeminism—an Afro-French feminist movement that fights against the oppression of Black women by men and by white women and claims the right for Black women to speak for themselves. Nsafou's picture book is deeply shaped by her Afrofeminist activism. Comme un million de papillons noirs tells the story of Adé, a Black girl who gets [End Page 164] bullied for her nappy hair and who, throughout the story, learns to love her hair and thus to accept herself. Despite being considered "unsaleable" by traditional publishing houses, the picture book is currently in its fourteenth printing and has received media coverage from major national newspapers like Libération, Le Nouvel Obs, Le Monde, the women's magazine Glamour, and the online newspapers HuffPost and Slate. Titles like "La diversité, grande absente de la littérature de jeunesse" (Amétis)—"Diversity, the big absentee in children's and YA literature"—pointed out the lack of diversity as the number one subject of the articles about Nsafou's picture book. It seems Comme un million de papillons noirs launched the interest of French mainstream media for the diversity issue in children's and YA books.
This paper examines how one children's book served as the catalyst to grow broad discussions about inclusive children's literature in France. On the one hand, it shows how Comme un million de papillons noirs challenges the French understanding of universalism and how the narrative choices of Laura Nsafou succeeded in raising the attention of mainstream media to the lack of representation of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children in children's literature. On the other hand, it analyzes the social context of the book's publication, linking its success to social media activity, which has been changing the power relation between authors of color and the mainly white industry of French publishing.
1. French Universalism and the Impossible Discussion about Inclusive Children's and YA Literature
The reticence of France to acknowledge the need for more ethnic and racial diversity in children's and YA literature is deeply rooted in France's self-concept as a country where everyone is equal and where no distinction of race, ethnicity, or religion is made. The first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a core statement of the French Revolution, declares: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good." This idea remains valid today: the first article of the current constitution (adopted in 1958) says that "France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It guarantees equality of all citizens before the...