The French Children’s Books That America Can’t Put Down

Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince has been captivating American children since 1943. But other French children’s books such as Babar, The Three Robbers, and the works of Sempé, Claude Ponti, and Olivier Tallec have also found a loyal following.
© Olivier Tallec

Everyone has heard of The Little Prince. The children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was published in 1943 and has sold 150 million copies. Other than the Bible and the Koran, it has become the world’s most translated book. Last April saw The Little Prince translated into its 300th language, Hassaniya Arabic, a dialect from Western Sahara. However, few may realize that an author in exile – much like the main character – lies behind this success story.

After arriving in New York in 1940 hoping to play a role in the French Resistance, Saint-Exupéry scribbled down the adventures of the Little Prince on a tablecloth during dinner with his publisher in Manhattan. He finished the book in Long Island, and it was published in New York by Reynal & Hitchcock in 1943. The work received critical acclaim in America and sold 30,000 copies, but was not released in France until three years later.

Some 74 years after it was first published, The Little Prince is now one of the most popular books at La Librairie des Enfants on the Upper East Side in New York City. The bookstore is managed by two French people – Lynda Ouhenia, the owner, and Matthieu Eveillard, the manager – and opened in early 2017 to meet a demand for French children’s books from expat Francophone parents and bilingual schools.

The bookstore is located in a former restaurant – the only remaining sign of which is a stovetop range hood perched above the cash register – and features a library collection with membership access. Wall paintings depict classics from French children’s literature, such as Puss in Boots, Bécassine, and The Fox and the Crow. Children sit around a table turning pages, opening flaps, and playing with touch-and-feel features. “These interactive books are particularly French,” says Matthieu Eveillard. “They help children to discover shapes and elements, control their emotions, and get used to the sounds of the French language.”

Bookstore Best-Sellers

But aside from the expat Francophone community, what is driving American enthusiasm for French children’s books? “It’s the quality of the literature,” says Alix de Cazotte, program officer at the Book Department of the Cultural Services at the French Embassy in New York. This enthusiasm is relative, as translated books only represent 3% of new publications on the U.S. market, but French is in first place with novels, essays, scientific works, and of course, children’s books occupying a prime position. The department records some 30 publications translated into English and distributed in the United States every year.

The interactive books by Hervé Tullet figure among the most recent publications. Since its 2010 release, Press Here – a gamebook translated into 42 languages – has been lauded by critics and has sold one million copies across the world. The book is even on the New York Times best-seller list. In light of this success, Tullet left France in 2016 and moved to Harlem with his wife (a journalist) and their youngest daughter.

In My Heart is another success story, offering a child’s poetic, sincere monologue about feelings written by Jo Witek and illustrated by Christine Roussey. The book was published in the United States in 2014, and has sold more than 250,000 copies. “Buoyed by such impressive sales, French children’s books have carved out a niche in independent networks,” says Alix de Cazotte. The Brooklyn-based publishing house Enchanted Lion is one of the drivers for this segment. The company has published works by Breton illustrator Olivier Tallec – one of the stars of the French publisher Gallimard Jeunesse, and whose series Rita et Machin has already been adapted into a cartoon in Japan. Lyon-based writer Marine Rivoal, and Marc Boutavant, a French author represented in New York by the Heart Agency illustration studio, are also published by Enchanted Lion.

The company’s publisher, Claudia Bedrick, applauded France’s “wonderful picture-book tradition” in an interview with the prestigious Harvard Magazine. And on the Enchanted Lion website, users can even search for writers and illustrators according to country of origin. Archipelago Books is another Brooklyn publishing house, and has just released the English translation of Claude Ponti’s masterpiece, My Valley. Two other American houses, Abrams in Manhattan, and Chronicle Books in San Francisco, share the market segment for popular French writers.

Facing up to Reality

So, what exactly are U.S. publishing houses looking for in France? Audacity seems to be the answer. Classic French children’s books have had the top spot in bookstores since 1930. One notable example is of course Babar the Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff, the first writer to combine text with large-scale images and offer his own social commentary through the prism of a fable. The elephant’s adventures serve as a backdrop for “the complacent colonial vision of the pre-war French bourgeoisie,” says Adam Gopnik, a former correspondent for The New Yorker in Paris. The philosophical allegory that is The Little Prince was also the first to inject a unique poetry into the children’s stories of the time.

As it happens, French children’s books are anything but childish! Often accompanied by a healthy dose of irony, this literature covers unpleasant subjects such as violence, death, divorce, and the general bleakness of life. “I was confronted with the dark reality of the adult world at a very young age,” says Claude Ponti, one of the most prolific children’s writers in France. “I think you have to really talk to children about reality, because it’s not all peaches and cream.”

This opinion is shared by Tomi Ungerer, the successful writer behind The Three Robbers. He lived through the Nazi occupation of France, and in another of his children’s books, Otto, he broaches themes of deportation and violence as witnessed by a teddy bear. “If life is unlivable, if humanity is inhumane,” according to the author, “you may as well tell people about it to discover the consequences and develop the motivation needed to combat injustice and violence.” And children should be made aware of this as early as possible.

“You have to traumatize children,” says Ungerer, provocatively. The artist was adored in the United States for his children’s illustrations during the 1950s, but was banned following his publication of erotic drawings and political cartoons during the 1960s. After disappearing from the American literary scene for more than 30 years, his works have recently been uncovered and successfully republished in English by Phaidon Press.

Cultural Differences and Disagreements

This French gravity and freedom of tone often create problems for American publishers. “The market is controlled by demand from schools,” says Alix de Cazotte, which explains why it is so strictly policed and held back by political correctness.

“American parents want to raise and educate their children using pure emotions, positive imagery, and a focus on self-esteem. They don’t see any good in introducing negativity at any point in their stories,” says Isabelle Bezard, preschool publishing director for Editions Bayard. Publishers therefore have to adapt. During the translation, certain references are removed, passages are cut, and the original storyline is often changed. This is the case of the superb book by Olivier Tallec and Joy Sorman, Blob, which was recently published in English by Enchanted Lion. The protagonist is a fish voted “the ugliest animal in the world,” and finishes on a fishmonger’s stall in the French version… and on a beach in Florida in the U.S. translation.

One solution to these cultural squabbles would be the introduction of close working relationships between French and American publishers. And this is exactly the strategy employed by the Tourbillon/Twirl publishing house, created by Editions Bayard in Paris, Handprint Books in New York, and Chronicle Books in San Francisco. These companies foster dialogue, work together to adapt the stories, and ensure the translated titles are sufficiently Americanized (vital to a French book’s success in the U.S.). A diplomatic way to avoid any cultural faux pas.

Babar the Elephant

Cécile de Brunhoff originally came up with the story of a baby elephant who discovers the wonders of human civilization to entertain her children. The suit-wearing Babar takes it upon himself to civilize his fellow elephants, and ends up being crowned king. The work was illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff, Cécile’s husband. First published in 1931, The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant sold four million copies before the start of World War II. Following the death of Jean de Brunhoff, his son, Laurent, continued the adventure and moved to New York in 1985 with his second wife, Phyllis Rose, an American writer he had met in Paris. The tales of Babar became best-sellers, with 28 books translated into some 30 languages, and more than 75 million copies sold worldwide. The most iconic among them are The Travels of Babar (1932), Babar and Father Christmas (1941), and Babar Comes to America (1965). The latest American addition to the opus is Babar’s USA (2008), a travel journal following the elephant’s adventures in the United States.

The Three Robbers

Tomi Ungerer left France for New York in 1956, leaving his memories of the Nazi occupation behind him. After arriving in the United States with 60 dollars in his pocket and a sketchbook, he became an illustrator for The New York Times, Life, and Harper’s Bazaar. Encouraged by a publisher at Harper & Row, he released his first illustrated children’s book in 1957, The Mellops Go Flying. Three other bookstore best-sellers followed: The Three Robbers (1961), Moon Man (1966) and Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear (1999). The boldly minimalist illustrations accompany dark yet poetic narratives: Upon seeing the Three Robbers, “Women fainted. Brave men ran. Dogs fled.”

The Little Prince

This children’s book tells the tale of a pilot and a blond-headed boy who “fell from the sky” into the middle of a desert, and its popularity continues to grow even today. The Little Prince has been translated into 300 languages and has sold more than 145 million copies. Originally scribbled down by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry while in exile in America in 1942, the story has been adapted countless times in the United States. Stanley Donen, who directed Singin’ in the Rain, made it into a musical for the big screen in 1974. Despite its promising cast including renowned choreographer and director Bob Fosse, and comedian Gene Wilder, the movie was something of a flop. But the soundtrack by German composer Frederick Loewe has remained etched in audiences’ memories. A 30-minute claymation version was released in 1979 by Will Vinton, and Mark Osborne made the most recent American movie adaptation in 2015.

My Valley

Just like Tomi Ungerer, Claude Ponti was originally a press illustrator. He worked for a long time at L’Express, and wrote Adele’s Album (Gallimard) in 1986 after the birth of his daughter. The picture book captures the beauty of the world in an homage to the imaginary forces of childhood, and abounds with animated objects, magical animals, and stupid, clumsy monsters. In his subsequent works, Claude Ponti invented increasingly madcap characters and intricately detailed, dreamlike worlds. He gave his creatures poetic names, and played with words and the association of ideas. The most notable masterpieces by the writer and illustrator include Blaise, le Poussin Masqué; Pétronille et ses 120 petits; and My Valley, in which “in the morning, the fog covers the entire valley. It’s warm out, and you can’t hear a sound” – recently published in English by Archipelago Books.

The Chronicles of Little Nicholas

Jean-Jacques Sempé and René Goscinny are famed for their funny series of books, The Chronicles of Little Nicholas. Sempé is a renowned French press illustrator, while Goscinny wrote the popular Lucky Luke comic books and the Asterix series. The pair teamed up in 1956 to write a series depicting a child’s adventures in the city, at school, with his parents, and on vacation. Through the eyes of Little Nicholas, Sempé and Goscinny describe the joy, frustration, and cruelty of childhood, accompanied by simple, funny illustrations, and childish, vivid language. The first books in the series were published in the weekly magazine Moustique, then in the daily newspaper Sud Ouest, and the comic magazine Pilote. Several hundred instalments were written up until 1965, and were later assembled into books and translated into English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The series was also translated into French regional languages such as Breton and Picard, as well as into Arabic, Spanish, Yiddish, and even Latin!


For the Solotareffs, children’s books and illustration are a longstanding family affair. Every member is passionate about children’s literature: The mother, Olga Lecaye, is a Russian-born illustrator; the son, Grégoire Solotareff, is a successful author of children’s books; and the daughter, Nadja, is an illustrator and the woman behind the excellent Momo series and the famous Chien Bleu book published by L’Ecole des Loisirs. The family’s other works include Quand je serai grand, je serai le Père Noël, and of course, Grégoire Solotareff’s Wolfy. The latter tells the story of a friendship between a wolf and a rabbit in a heart-warming fable, and helps dispel children’s fear of wolves. The books feature colorful illustrations outlined with black, and the dashed, lively strokes offer a “continuity of moods.” With more than one million copies sold across the world and a movie adaptation in 2003, the Wolfy series went on to win the 2014 César Award for Best Animated Film thanks to one particular installment, Wolfy, the Incredible Secret.


Olivier Tallec is an illustrator for France-Amérique, newspapers Libération and Le Monde, children’s books, and comics, and is one of the most successful French illustrators abroad. The 40-something Breton confronts the imaginary world of childhood with the prosaic realities of adulthood. His best-selling works include the series Rita et Machin (Editions Gallimard) written by Jean-Philippe Arrou-Vignod, which tells the story of a little girl who has head lice and her dog who has fleas. The series has been translated into some 15 languages, and adapted into a popular cartoon in Japan. Tallec’s other achievements include Big Wolf and Little Wolf (Editions Flammarion), and Blob: The Ugliest Creature in the World (written by Joy Sorman) in 2015. The latter is a tale about a fish driven to depression by fame and the vanity of the world. On a more practical level, the Who What Where series and its adorable little creatures offers gamebooks that test children’s memory skills. The latest instalment Who Done It? has just been published in English by Chronicle Books.

But don’t be fooled by these loveable creations! Alongside his children’s books, in which characters such as superheroes, bunnies, school kids, bears, artists, and sheep coexist in pastel-colored realities, Tallec has also become adept in the art of humorous illustrations for adults. Inspired by the masters of press illustration such as Tomi Ungerer, Sempé, Gary Larson, and Glen Baxter, he manages to present a blend of the absurd and dark humor with just a few brushstrokes and a cutting quip. Tallec also plays on the gentle appearance of his drawings compared with the radical subject matter of the texts. This irony is something parents will pick up on, and is used to point the finger at human stupidity or the abuse of power – as seen in Louis I, King of the Sheep (2014 Prix Landerneau in the Children’s Books category). This juxtaposition is used to exceptional effect. Any reader will find it hard not to laugh when looking at the adorable blonde kid in Bonne Journée (Editions Rue de Sèvres, 2016), as he sits before the Christmas tree and tells his parents what’s what: “Last year was total bull. I hope it won’t be as pathetic this year!”

Iconic American Children’s Books in France

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is one of the first that comes to mind. The book was published in Paris by Robert Delpire in 1967, and tells the story of Max’s adventures in the imaginary world of the Wild Things – terrifying creatures who nevertheless bend to his will and make him king. Today it is still stocked in every school and library in France. Ludwig Bemelmans’ stories of Madeline are also iconic. The little girl’s adventures were the focus of a series of children’s books, and were adapted for cinema in 1999 as Madeline: Lost in Paris, and for television as Madeline. These French-American exchanges are also common themes in the fictional stories themselves. After all, Babar the Elephant traveled to the United States in Babar Comes to America (1965). American illustrator Julie Kraulis walked her unique pet through the streets of Paris in search of “the Iron Lady” in An Armadillo in Paris. And Jackie Clark Mancuso’s Paris-Chien series tells the tale of an American expat dog in Paris, his vacations in Provence, and his difficulties speaking to local canines.

Article published in the November 2017 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.