When asked recently in an informal poll what sets French children’s books apart, French publishers and illustrators agreed: particular attention to design and illustration, as well as editorial and aesthetic freedom.
“Each country is very different in its approach, but in France we are not just about series. We give a lot of weight to texts as well as the images,” said Hélène Wadowski, the director of children’s books at Flammarion. “Our creative drive is what helps us sell.”
Wadowki cites illustrator Olivier Tallec’s work as an example, whose painterly images for Big Wolf and Little Wolf contributed to the book’s success in France; it was also sold to nine countries.
Murielle Coueslan, Nathan’s editorial director for “under 8’s” concurs. “What is unique in France is that there’s a big focus on artwork.”
Coueslan notes that at the Bologna Book Fair “people come over to the French area to see what we’re doing. Illustrators are often artists. A classic road for illustrators when they get out of art school is to go into book publishing.”
But, says Coueslan, part of this creativity is also spurred on by the enormous production of books in France, tough competition and a difficult market. “We’re in a holding pattern right now in which you have to be super creative. We’re all trying to find something original. Books that do well deserve to do so, they are creative and well done and, besides, the public is more educated and more demanding.”
One of the most popular books at Nathan is T’choupi, a penguin who stars in a collection of books and is now an application for iPhone and iPad. “The character appeals to the monomaniacal side of small children,” said Coueslan.
The first author to introduce pop-up books to l’école des loisirs publisher was Kimiko Jurgenson, who grew up in France and was trained as a fashion designer. A popular illustrator and author in the pre-school category, Kimiko (who uses just her first name on books) is part of the stable of authors who work for this family-run independent publisher.
Most école des loisirs writers have “a sort of crazy, unspoken faithfulness to the company,” said Kimiko, who has worked for the publisher exclusively (besides one collection for Gallimard) since 1991 and has published close to 100 books.
“In 1993, I proposed four pop-ups about animals. They said ’series don’t sell, this is a gimmick.’ They tried to discourage me. So I stuck some paper together and presented a sort of glued-up thing. And they agreed to do it, saying all the while that it wouldn’t sell. But the books sold. Thirty more were done in this series.”