For this post, I have had to search my memory for books that impacted me when I was growing up. It was a tough task, but let’s not linger on the state of my neurons and instead look at what books French children are most likely to grow up with, though school or left to their own devices.
Of the translated books I grew up with, the most notable have been the Narnia series, Little House on the Prairie series, Anne of Green Gables and Enid Blyton Famous Five series). Nowadays, I suspect French children may well read Harry Potter and similar supernatural tales. Thematic collections of traditional tales from different countries are also very popular, like Nordic or Middle-eastern fairy tales.
The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de St Exupéry is an internationally renowned classic loved by children and adults.
Tales of Mother Goose (Contes de ma mère l’Oye) by Charles Perrault, were written long before the Brothers Grimm and Disney got hold of them so the traditional fairy tales are in their unadulterated, non-PC and fairly horrifying form (probably not suitable for young children!). Includes Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard to name but a few.
The Comtesse de Ségur, who was originally Russian but spent her life in France in the 19th century, wrote a number of children’s books most notably Sophie’s Misfortunes (Les Malheurs de Sophie). This bilingual book of Fairy Tales for Small Children contains tales that would appeal to younger children.
The Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (Les Fables de la Fontaine): you can’t escape La Fontaine’s fables when you are at school in France; they are morality tales in poetic form, usually featuring animals and really quite clever.
The Witch in the Broom Cupboard and Other Tales (La sorcière de la rue Moufetard et autres contes de la rue Broca), by Pierre Gripari. I am so happy this book has been translated into English; it is wonderful from start to finish. The tales are fantastically creative and imaginative and the humour is spot on for children.
Nicholas (Le Petit Nicolas), by René Goscinny et Jean-Jacques Sempé is one of a few more recent tales that have become classics in their own right. It tells the adventures of Nicolas, a typical French school boy, and his friends.
For toddlers and pre-schoolers, the story collections of Martine, by Gilbert Delaye & Marcel Marlier, Emilie by Domitille de Pressensé, and Mini-Loup by Philippe Matter, are all excellent. None of these book collections are translated into English but they are a great introduction to the French language if you are that way inclined. They tell basic stories about day-to-day activities that young children engage with themselves: birthdays, shopping, animals, nightmares, having a bath, etc.
Another way that the French try to encourage children to read is by offering magazine subscriptions, but the magazine themselves are more like collections of stories, comics and educational games on a monthly theme. My girls have been receiving Popi (0-3) and Abricot (3-5).
All the comics I have mentioned before at the end of my post recommending books for adults are also well worth a look if you have reluctant readers, things like Tintin, Astérix, Boule & Bill and Titeuf.