BETWEEN THE LINES

Five children's books about Paris that inspire Hong Kong family to visit

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2015, 11:08pm

Last month, my husband and I started brainstorming our next holiday while we were, funnily enough, on holiday. We considered Amsterdam, Prague and cities in Spain or Italy. And then our eyes lit up at the idea of going back to Paris, the destination of our first trip together. I admit that, while he was envisioning this romantic getaway for the two of us, I fantasised about bringing our daughters along to discover the famous landmarks and many attractions for families.

My fantasy is undoubtedly fuelled by our well-read copies of Madeline and Adele & Simon. The story of a red-headed seven-year-old girl living in a boarding school in Paris, Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline has been read aloud in our home dozens of times. We love the rhyme and rhythm of the text, and have spent so much time poring over interesting details of pre-second world war life. There is a doctor who makes house calls, and then proceeds to call for an ambulance by instructing a telephone operator to connect him to "Danton-Ten-Six". At the hospital, Madeline convalesces in a bed that is adjustable using a manual bed crank.

Barbara McClintock's Adele & Simon is equally charming and nostalgic for life in a different era. The story starts with Adele collecting her younger brother Simon after school. On the way home, the two children make detours through many iconic scenes of early 19th century Paris: a street market, city garden, museum, Latin Quarter enclave and a tea salon. At each stop, Simon absented-mindedly leaves behind his hat, scarf, school bag, coat… until he arrives home with nothing but the shirt on his back.

For this column, I wanted to compare these two books, and was curious to find out which book had been written first. When I saw that McClintock's book was published in 2006, more than six decades after Bemelmans published Madeline, I did a double-take, then made sure it wasn't the date of reprinting. What a pleasant surprise to learn that McClintock is a contemporary illustrator who enjoys creating picture books that evoke a past world.

Her story is also a pleasant surprise. She left her childhood home in North Dakota and moved to New York after cold-calling Maurice Sendak to ask about how to become a children's book illustrator. He took the time to chat with her on the phone, advising her how to put together a portfolio and recommending that she move to New York.

There are other wonderful picture books about the City of Light. A Giraffe Goes to Paris is Mary Tavener Holmes' account of the true story of Belle the giraffe. She was a gift from the pasha of Egypt to King Charles X of France, and, in 1827, she sailed from Alexandria to Marseilles, and then took more than one month to walk the 800km to Paris. Old maps, photographs and portraits supplement Jon Cannell's illustrations.

Emily Arnold McCully's beautifully illustrated Mirette on the High Wire won the 1993 Caldecott Medal. It is an inspiring story about courage and perseverance. Mirette is a feisty and fearless little girl who, through her determination to learn to walk a tightrope, helps a retired tightrope walker to overcome his fear.

For beginners, Dodsworth in Paris is about comic foil Dodsworth and a mischievous duck. The simple, succint sentences present a hilarious story and the expressive illustrations will have children and adults laughing aloud at the silly antics of the troublemaking duck.

The wonderful thing about all of the above books is that each is part of a series, so you can enjoy books with the same premise or characters, in a new city or adventure.

Annie Ho is board chair of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong bringmeabook.org.hk a non-profit organisation advocating for family literacy.