Title: Nicholasand Nicholas Again
Author: Rene Goscinny
Illustrator: Jean Jacques Sempé
Jean Jaques Sempé (the brilliant French cartoonist most Americans know thanks to his covers for The New Yorker) and Rene Goscinny, another French humorist, first started producing the "Nicholas" series of stories and comics in 1959. Classics of French Children's literature, the Nicholas Stories were published here in America, in a translation by Anthea Bell, by art-house publisher Phaidon over the last 6 or 7 years, and are terribly amusing for young and old. These books are hilarious and wonderful, and as I love Sempé, I found myself enjoying the story so much I almost forgot to look at the pictures.
The stories are told, first person, by Nicholas--an approximately-7-year-old french school boy--as he chronicles the activities of his daily life. The stories are like those long stories eagerly told by young kids at the dinner table: they have interesting minutia of detail; they always introduce their friends with the same information ("My friend Alec, who is always eating," "Alec, my freind who lives down the block and is always eating"); and their analysis of situations is hilariously naieve. (For example, after a catastrophic field trip to the Art Museum, their teacher, worn out by the boys, says she never wants to see another painting again. Nicholas concludes: "So then I realized why teacher hadn't looked very happy about spending the day in the art gallery with us. She isn't really fond of pictures at all.")
I couldn't tell you my favorite adventures. There was the soccer game that never got started because they spent the whole time arguing about who would be goalie, only to discover they didn't have a team to play against (see below illustration). Then there was the time he and Alec (the "fat friend who is always eating") decide to take play hooky, and spend the whole time "having fun"--that is, being bored with their freedom and wishing they were in school with their other friends. And (see above) the day he stayed home from school and managed to stain his sheets with pen ink first, then chocolate, then soup.
Though there is a certian timelessness in Sempé's illustrations, this is not the stuff of nostalgia. This isn't "The Sandlot," "A Christmas Story," or "Stand by Me." Instead Goscinny's tone is straight, and the humor is found in a certain "kids say the darndest things" quailty of the narrative. Even the adults are teased; during one chapter Nicholas and Alec smoke cigars, get sick, and upon returning home can only manage to say the word "smoke." Mom finally has an excuse to throw out Dad's pipe. And the adults might have a thing or two to learn from their son's childish innocence:
"Mom asked if this was anytime to get home from a business dinner. 'Oh really,' said Dad, 'It's not at all late.'(Alec ends up breaking his watch--see illustration below--for which his parents are grateful!)
'It's exactly 11:58 p.m.' I said. I felt very proud of myself [and my new watch], because I do like being helpful to Mom and Dad."
In reading these books I have to wonder how kids will react. It seems to me a lot of the humor is aimed at adults who can see the irony of a child's perspective. But the adventures are fun, so I think some kids will enjoy them all the same. Any mother of boys, and any teacher of young kids ought to read them--it will bring some much needed levity to those days when all they do is fight each other, or collect tadpoles and spiders and leave them on your pillow.
The other volumes in the series (which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading) are:
The Chronicles of Little Nicholas
Nicholas on Holiday
Nicholas in Trouble
Nicholas on Vacation
Nicholas and the Gang