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What French children’s books can teach us about melancholy

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Books for kids in France validate the notion that to be uncomfortable is normal, that we're not defective if we lack cheer at times.

Julie Fournet moved back to Paris last summer with her two children and her husband. She was my closest mother friend in Manhattan and I can’t stroll past her old apartment without thinking of her complaining about how in New York City the bread shop is two miles from the flower shop, which, in turn, is hopelessly far from the butcher. Her discontent seemed, paradoxically, to enliven her, to add flair to her fiery Parisian inflections.

“I forgot to tell you our big news!” Julie wrote in a recent e-mail. “We have a new member of the family! Her name is “Albertine!””

I opened the attachment to behold a tiny cat, the color of a graham cracker.

“We named her for the French bookshop on Fifth Avenue. Have you been there yet?”

******

Recently my 5-year-old learned the word malaise. This is just what a day feels like sometimes, I explained. The sky was gray, rain threatened, trash bags lay heaped our sidewalk, and the residue of just-walked dogs were our constant obstacle, or so it seemed to my droopy child. It was not playground weather, and without vigorous daily exercise my child’s temperament leans toward restless and at times gloomy.

“Let’s walk across Central Park,” I suggested. My daughter looked murderous, my husband merely doubtful.

We exited the park at Fifth Avenue and 79th Street.  

Then I remembered.

Albertine.

And there it was: Julie’s French bookshop. It had once been a private Fifth Avenue residence, but now it is a softly lit bookshop, the sort that lets you linger and read without expecting a penny as long as you handle their goods with care. We whispered as we walked through the marble entryway and made our way up the grand staircase to the children’s books.  

“This book is called T’Choupi Goes on Vacation, I told my daughter, translating from the French. “Shall I read it to you?”

Here’s what happens in T’Choupi Goes on Vacation: T’Choupi can’t wait to get to vacation! “Are we there yet?” He asks his mother. She distracts him in many ways. “Look T’Choupi, let’s play spot a blue car!” “Let’s have a picnic!” But T’Choupi won’t have it. He wants to arrive at his destination now! He’s distressed and restless. Then, at last, his mother announces that they’ve finally arrived.

A happy ending!

But is it?

“That didn’t take long enough,” says T’Choupi. “I am not ready for the beach.”

At the precise moment T’Choupi arrives at the sand; he loses his desire for it; is anyone ever ready to get what they want? The book makes the point that dissatisfaction is sometimes simply a fact of life.

******

My daughter snuggled in my lap; we next read Petit Ours Brun Dit Non, about a little bear who refuses to put on his boots, or put his toys away, or wear a sweater. He has his reasons, and states them plainly. His mother at last poses a simple question: “Little Brown Bear, don’t you ever want to say “yes”? “Non, non, et non!” he replies. And this is how the book ends. He is content with discontent.

I reached for the next book in our pile: Petits Bleus Dans Paris, in which Jean loses sight of his mother and is lost in the crowds of Paris. He cries. A pigeon named Nestor swoops down and asks him if he would like a tour of Paris. He also knows where the boy’s address is and can fly him home whenever he likes. Jean agrees to the tour. He witnesses pigeons roosting at Notre Dame, he visits Montmarte, he takes a boat ride down the Seine. When Nestor takes him home, Jean’s mother seems pleased to see him, but not especially relieved. She smiles and embraces him, but one has the distinct impression that she has not spent the day tearing her hair out. The pigeon hesitates to meet Jean’s mother. He might end up in a stew, he reasons.

C’est la vie, indeed.

Here was another book that did not give children a sense that anxiety, even due to being lost in a vast city, was a calamity. It is, even from the mother’s perspective, a sometimes fact of life.

******

T’Choupi’s inability to muster enthusiasm despite achieving his heart’s desire is not only realistic, but of great use to readers, especially parents who are raising children who have any tendency toward melancholy. French children’s books validate the notion that to be uncomfortable is normal. We are not defective if we at times lack cheer.

It isn’t easy to find an American children’s book that allows for a state of discontent as natural, that demonstrates that a child can not only survive but even sit comfortably with discomfort. I scoured the shelves of our local library trying to find such a book, but for the most part, our books for young children reflect relentless optimism. Our picture books nearly always feature tidy, happy endings.

I did find a book recently that followed the French model. Prickly Jenny chronicles a series of agitated outbursts from a glum child: “Jenny says, “Leave me alone.” But she cries when Mommy goes away.” She holds up her drawings, but is annoyed if they are praised. Jenny is miserable and aggressively resistant to the solutions her parents offer; the book mildly concludes that tomorrow, when Jenny is older, things might be better. My 5-year-old took to this book immediately. I perused the title page more closely, and discovered that Prickly Jenny is  translation of Ronchonette Cocollein.

Bien sur. The book is French.

 ******

Discontent is common. Some of us need treatment when it grows outsized. In the past, I have required medical intervention for my own agitated melancholy. I’m better acquainted than I’d care to be with hopelessness, restlessness, and irrational grief. I don’t believe that persistent depression in a loved one should be ignored or accepted. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I am certain that depression is on a continuum, and that we draw a thick line between “the blues” and “clinical depression” at our peril. I know from experience that a certain philosophical approach is ameliorative when we feel sorrow in reasonable amounts. Sometimes we need to wait and see before we act, give the brain a chance to find ways to right itself.

Let us not always rush to disrupt this process. I teach my child that it is acceptable to be uncomfortable sometimes, and not to fear agitation and try to immediately “solve” it.  

If we give discontent its due, children — and adults — might have a fighting chance of enjoying the only guarantee in any moment: life itself.

******

Julie Fournet wrote again to tell me she’d mastered a piano composition after years of procrastination. She was going to play it for her mother, who has been wheelchair-bound since surviving a car wreck three decades ago. “Things happen,” Julie says, when she speaks of the terrifying accident her family experienced on a lonely country road in Auvergne when she was only three.

I imagine Julie playing the notes, which she has at last stubbornly mastered. While she plays those hard-won scales, Albertine the cat — named for a bookstore in the city Julie loved to hate — lies sleepily on the piano, passively accepting the moment for what it is.

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