From vengeful rabbits to playing with guns, the picture books given to French children have a reputation for being uncompromisingly scary – further proof that the French do not coddle les enfants, even at story time.
While it’s true that the French embrace topics and styles that more timid Anglophone picture book publishers would reject, right now, France is producing some of the finest books for children in the world. The best – and there are many too choose from – are visually sophisticated, quirky, funny and daring. And at the Salon du livre et de presse jeunesse in Montreuil, which I was fortunate to visit in November 2014, you can see it all.
|Timothee de Fombelle (seated, right)|
When it comes to promoting of books and reading there is nothing in Australia like the SLPJ. This bustling six-day program of book market, exhibitions, author appearances, signings, panels, debates, projections and more attracted 160,000 visitors, most of them children and teenagers. Celebrating its 30th year, the Salon brings plenty of attention to children’s book at exactly the right time of year and does so with a mighty bang - with 450 exhibitors.
|Casterman, just one of 450 exhibitors. Publishers also retail from their displays.|
Every publisher worthy of their colophon exhibits here: the big like Flammarion, Gallimard and Casterman (publishers of Tintin); the edgy independents like Editions Thiery Magnier and Editions Fourmis Rouges; and icons like l‘ecoles les loisirs (celebrating 50 years in 2015) and Albin Michel Jeunesse. There are specialist art book publishers (yes, for children) and specialist human rights publishers (yes, also for children); and the national library promotes its programs for professionals. This is the epicenter of French book publishing for children and teenagers. (A full list of exhibitors here.)
|Saturday crush for 'une dedicace'|
Authors appearing included Quentin Blake (also featured in large and beautiful exhibition), Meg Rosoff, Cathy Cassidy and local heroes including Pénélope Bagieu and Timothee de Fombelle, author of the brilliant Toby Alone. de Fombelle's new novel, Le livre de perle, won Best European YA novel in the Salon's awards. Hundreds of authors appear, and even more illustrators, since having your book ‘signed’ with original artwork, une dedicace is de rigueur.
But there is something just as important as the commercial and cultural side to the Salon, and which gives the event its soul: that is the connection to community. The strong relationship between the Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse, the local government, the national government and the publishing industry that makes the event so successful. This is the second major French book festival I have attended, and Australian publishing could learn a lot from this kind of integrated planning and promotion that makes SLPJ so successful. It was also striking to see how warmly the publishing people I met embraced the Salon: they genuinely enjoyed being a part of it, meeting their customers and their colleagues. Thirty years on, this one has a lot energy and purpose.
|Posters appear in all the Metro lines|
Montreuil is in the east of Paris and just beyond the peripherique, that sometimes real, sometimes imaginary line that marks the start of the banlieue, the suburbs. So imagine a book festival in Braybrook or Dandenong or Blacktown. The Seine-St Denis local government, which supports the SLJP, is among the most left-wing districts in Paris. It’s home to many thousands of Malian migrants (it’s sometimes called Little Bamako), with more than 100 languages spoken.
|Outside SLPJ, Montreuil, in Seine St Denis|
“Montreuil is always a fight”, one foreign rights agent confided to me. What she meant is, that it is always a fight to get respect, to get the resources, to get the media coverage for this major celebration. In director Sylvie Vassolo, the Salon has a leader prepared to stand up for children’s books. Politics is in her blood and her training: prior to leading SLPJ, Sylvie Vassolo headed the national union of Communist students.
|A selection of the books bought at SLPJ|
Children and teenagers arrive in school groups, or with childcare centres, after-school recreation and youth clubs, and with parents. Thousands of parents and children pay 6 euros (about $9) admission and receive a 4 euro book voucher (children are free). They can be seen exploring, reading, discussing, buying and delighting in the hundreds of stalls, events, exhibitions, book signings. Outside it might be chilly, but the scenes on the three floors of a scruffy convention centre are hectic.
At the time of this trip I was the Program Manager for the Melbourne Writers Festival 2011-2015. Travel to the Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse was kindly supported by the Consulate-General of France, Sydney. Special thanks to Emmanuelle Denavit-Feller, and to staff of the publishing houses, all of whom made me welcome, answered my questions, shared their knowledge and passion, and put up with my ordinary French.
A version of this account first appeared on the Wheeler Centre Dailies.