Our children’s books
I still have the memory of an amphitheater but maybe it was just a simple meeting room. The solemnity of the moment still grips me, years later. I came to attend the oral test of a competition and only saw the candidates from behind, while the jury of five people faced me from afar. If the judges greeted each candidate with a few words of congratulations, they were nevertheless there to test them, sort them, choose them, eliminate the majority, keep only a handful.
Alas, they are not students experienced in this kind of exercise, but high school students who have not yet graduated, hoping to join an exchange program between a major English university and the Sorbonne at the beginning of the academic year . They are certainly good students, not accustomed to failure, some of them will certainly experience them for the first time.
They carefully prepared the paragraph with their motivation. They have read the press in recent weeks. They know how to say what they have learned from such a trip or such extracurricular activity. They didn’t come as tourists! However, when a girl was asked what her favorite English book was, an angel walked into the room. Everyone understood, in the blink of an eye, that he was shocked. How can you recognize a skepticism, when it takes less time than it takes for the lungs to fill before announcing the rewarding names we expect, William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, William Blake, Thomas Hardy?
None of these geniuses came to the rescue of this poor candidate. In the book that came to his mind when he needed it, he didn’t even know the author. But when he uttered the fatal title, Good Night Moon (Good night, Moon), the five jurors paused, unconsciously moving away from the table where they were taking their notes while, furtively meeting the others’ eyes. Something just happened.
I fear scaring this thing by trying to describe it. That those who do not know Good Night Moon in its original version (Harper Collins) or in its French edition (L’École des loisirs) know that this is a book intended for very young children. Illustrated with vividly colored drawings, it depicts the sleepy journey of a little white rabbit lost in a big bed, watched over by a grandmother who knits as she says “shhh…”.
The rabbit names familiar objects around it, as well as the moon and stars, and bids them good night as if killing them calmly and methodically one by one. On a blank page, he made a wish “Hello, nobody”and to end the tribute “The Sounds of the Earth” (This masterpiece of the ordinary fairy tale has been boycotted for decades by librarians, a pope of children’s literature who didn’t like it, but that’s another story).
Before our eyes, during the final test ceremony of a tournament, a book for toddlers rises from a girl’s oldest memories and saves her. And in the very hearts of the jurors, what resonance did the evocation of this book immediately find, what sweet memories did their exchanged glances elicit?
It is no coincidence that this story came to mind today! This weekend indeed, we heard a lot about the so-called children’s literature, which held its annual fair in Montreuil. I’ve never been there, but I always spend time and spend a lot in the children’s departments of bookstores which, in France, are full of nuggets. I also kept my favorite children’s books, mostly “Little Golden Books” – some of them, like The Five Little Firemenwas written by the same American author as Good Night Moon.
When we were young, we read for a long time before we could read. The books we put down, whose pages we explore for long periods of time in silence, are not simple picture books. Early childhood books, along with a few lines of indecipherable text, magnify the magic of words. The words we cannot read are full of mystery and promises of riches.
These are the treasures that came to the rescue of the young candidate, who even emerged in a foreign language from the depths of the time when he could not read. But, as magicians, these three words brought everyone back to the prehistory of their own history, which guided them to this amphitheater. Because we cannot forget our children’s books, but they, especially these, do not forget us.