A Quick Post in Appreciation of Dorothée de Monfreid

h1 January 6th, 2010 by jules

“It was a wolf! Felix trembled as he watched the wolf build a great big fire and sit down in front of it. ‘Stay still,’ Felix told himself. And then, suddenly, he heard . . .”

So, I certainly haven’t read all of French author/illustrator Dorothée de Monfreid’s titles. Far from it. I’ve only ever seen I’d Really Like to Eat a Child, written by Sylviane Donnio and published first here in the States by Random House in ’07. (Here is my enthusiastic post about that title.)

Let me be clear, too, that I’m not one of those bloggers who is going to stop talking about 2009 titles, simply because 2010 has presented herself. Oh heavens, no. Clearly, I like to focus on illustration anyway, and so—as I shine a spotlight on Dorothée today—I mention her latest title, which was published in September of ’09, Dark Night, originally published in France in ’07 as Nuit Noire. (O, French, how I wish I had learned you better. “Nuit Noire” is just so fun to say. Say it with me now, dear readers.)

Probably not surprisingly, as the rabid Sendak fan that I am, I love those picture books that address the fears of children — and in entertaining ways. Dark Night is one of these books, Publishers Weekly writing, “{Monfreid’s} insight into the fears and desires of children make for a tale that contains the winning elements of storytelling: suspense, surprise, secret passages, dressing up and hot chocolate. It’s about solving problems and conquering fears, but also just a monstrously good time.” Yeah, the emphasis there is all mine. Hot chocolate. Mmm.

“It was a dark night,” the book opens. For some reason left to our own imagination, a young boy named Felix, clad in his bright-red pajamas, is walking through the forest alone, “very little and very scared.” (This set-up strikes me as being very similar to the random appearance of General Fears and Weirdness so prevalent in children’s dreams. I still remember my own.) Hearing a loud, scary noise, he tucks himself inside a hollow tree. Turns out it’s a wolf, warming himself in front of a fire, as you can see in the above spread. Still hiding, Felix then hears a “GRRRR!”, which scares both him and the wolf. It’s an even bigger and more ferocious-looking creature, a tiger this time (with a hugely huge head, I might add). But then—you guessed it—the tiger runs away when a third creature appears (à la de Monfreid’s aforementioned ’07 title), a big, light green crocodile.

Felix’s knees began to shake. He curled up more tightly in the hollow tree. And then he felt something against his back. Very carefully, Felix reached behind him and felt something hard and round. It was a doorknob.

Now, let me ask you this: How inviting is that after the dark, scary forest? The tiny, hidden, secret house WITH HOT CHOCOLATE INSIDE. De Monfreid knows children and knows them well.

I don’t want to give away the entire story, but I will say: There’s a rabbit in this house. Not cute and fluffy — but friendly. When Felix tells hims, “I want to go home, but I am afraid to go back outside,” the rabbit not only offers to help — but also dons a black cape and grabs his suitcase while doing so. What’s in that suitcase? Felix finds out at the top of the stairs, and boy howdy, do I wish I had that spread to show you: It’s a mask, a big scary devil-esque mask. The rabbit sits on Felix’s shoulders, they drape themselves in the black cape, and the rabbit puts on the scary mask. “Walk straight ahead and growl like a lion,” the rabbit whispers to Felix. Now, do you think they make it to Felix’s house? Why, of course they do, yet there’s one more little plot twist at the end.

School Library Journal wrote, adding praise for de Monfreid’s cartoonesque watercolor-and-ink illustrations (“extraordinarily expressive”):

…the two small, peaceable beings turn the tables, not once, but twice on their terror-inspiring counterparts. A little cool-headedness, a dollop of ingenuity, and a big helping of friendship convert a hopeless situation into a gentle and downright funny triumph. The best part of this wonderful tale is that Felix is an Everyman among children. There is nothing about him that sets him apart from his readers, and every child will be able to picture himself/herself in his shoes.

With a post title such as the one for this post, you’d think I’d be addressing way more than just two of de Monfreid’s titles, but alas and alack, I cannot, as I think these are the only two that have been published in the States. Can I just make this plea, though, for more First American Editions of her titles to any, I dunno, publishers or publisher-type-people who might be reading?

Pretty please with hot chocolate on top?

9 comments to “A Quick Post in Appreciation of Dorothée de Monfreid”

  1. Thanks for this post Jules. Even if you don’t speak French, there is an illuminating video of Dorothé de Monfreid presenting book dummies and sketches on her French publisher’s website (école de loisirs)

  2. Well, the post title DOES specify that this will be a quick appreciation of de Monfried. 🙂

    Although I don’t know a lick of French, I just looked around for more of her work. I found a page (one piece by her there, not quite halfway down, amid a bunch by others) which really, really made me wish I understood at least a little of the language. Sigh.

    And you’re right — having wandered through Amazon just now, I’m staggered by how little translation she’s received. I wonder if that would be by her choice? (I can’t think why someone would want to be UNtranslated if given the option, but it’s a big universe.) (Hmm… hints of a topic for one of Steven’s Fieldnotes?)

    From your description of this book, I love remembering the sense, as a little kid, of not being wholly sure whether or not I was was still “in” a particularly vivid dream as I staggered downstairs, rubbing my eyes.

    And dang, now I’m going to have to find a copy of the book just to see that spread.

  3. Oh thanks, Rob! I did see one video there. Neat to see her do a drawing.

    John, if you mean that Steven talking to a translator would be a great fieldnote one day, man, I’d have to agree. Great idea! As a former interpreter, you know I love that idea a whole, whole lot…And thanks for that page link.

  4. I like the idea of interview a translator, too. I’ll add that to my growing list. Merci beaucoup and muchas gracias!

  5. Love Felix, his big eyes, and red pajamas (we’re channeling PJs today)! And of course the HOT CHOCOLATE!! Thanks for introducing me to yet another awesome illustrator. Love the kitchen spread :). Nuit noire, nuit noire, nuit noire. Ah . . . .oui!

  6. my kid loved this story! he lost with it his fear to wolves (a little at least)… Gracias desde España!

  7. I’m always on the lookout for books for my preschool class…they love the scary ones! And maybe I can read something other than ‘Spooky Hour’ over and over again!

  8. […] favorite illustrations from the story. You can find an excellent review of Dorothee’s book by Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. If your library gets a copy in, check it out asap. It’s wonderful! September 1st, 2010 […]

  9. Thank you everybody for all your nice comments !
    I’m very glad to read you.
    If you want to know more about my work, you can have a look to my website : http://supersauvage.blogspot.com/
    It is about a little dog who wants to become wild.
    The complete story will be published in France as book+CD in april 2011.

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