FRENCH FRIDAY: The Good Little Devil – a special guest post
A French classic from the 1960s, this collection of thirteen eccentric short stories taps into our cultural heritage of fairy and folk tales and offers a comical and often ludicrous reading experience. While some tales are obvious fractured fairy-tales (‘The Fairy in the Tap’ is a fairly straight forward retelling of Perrault’s ‘The Fairies’ for example), some are more unusual, for example The Pair of Shoes. Some tales will be unfamiliar to British children; ‘The Story of Lustucru’ for example takes root from a childhood song that every French child will know, ‘La mère Michel’ (you can listen to it here). But that is certainly no criticism; one of the joys of reading stories from other lands is this discovery of something totally new and unusual, and The Good Little Devil offers this sense of discovery while still offering the familiarity of many magical tales.
The origin of the tales makes these stories particularly special I think: Gripari, or Monsieur Pierre, would sit at a café on Rue Broca in Paris and tell stories to the local children. After he ran out of the stories he remembered from childhood, he and the children would make up some brand-new ones, and that’s how The Good Little Devil was born. This might explain the total wackiness of the tales, but might also explain why there is such a great sense of good and bad and right and wrong in each of the stories. Kindness, love and goodness are always rewarded while the bad and nasty are always punished. What gives this collection its child appeal is how preposterous each and every tale is. Children love the absurd, and learn a lot from it, and though some parents might dismiss these tales as being a bit too much on the wacky side, children will love them for exactly that reason.
Pushkin’s Children’s Books take great care in creating beautiful books so this has the added bonus that it will make a beautiful gift.
To celebrate this French Friday, I am delighted to welcome Stephanie Seegmuller, who is Associate Publisher at Pushkin Children’s Books, and whose favourite childhood book is The Good Little Devil and Other Tales. She explains below why it is such a special book to her.
I think the phrase I heard most often as I was growing up was: “Be reasonable”. Whether I wanted an ice cream in winter, to climb up trees in my Sunday best or get all my Christmas presents by the summer (my birthday is in April, so the months between both batches of presents always seemed ridiculously stretched out). Adults were reasonable, school was reasonable, nothing unreasonable ever happened, except… in the stories of The Good Little Devil, which I loved ever since it was read to me for the first time.
Imagine my delight—a world full of all manner of unreasonable things: numbers come to life, pigs swallow stars, fairies come out of taps, potatoes become friends with guitars and their weddings to sultans make it into the tabloids. In this world, being good means being naughty, and vice versa (Have I lost you? Read the eponymous tale of the Good Little Devil), so being reasonable means… you get where I’m going.
But here comes the most unreasonable part—in this book, children are always cleverer than adults! They do get some help from unlikely friends but they win in the end, against all odds. When Bachir, like all children, demands a bicycle NOW, and his father, like all fathers, says no (unreasonable, again!), Bachir’s magic doll successfully sources the necessary funds by relieving a poor oyster of a painful pearl. In another story cool-headed Bachir coaches a panicked adult in his fight against evil, and elsewhere a lovestruck pair of shoes set out together on their honeymoon, again thanks to some clever children.
However weird it gets, the world of Gripari is also very familiar, and therefore very reassuring. The fairytale creatures I knew by heart (mermaids, fairies, witches) are all there. And although grown-up rules don’t apply, being kind is still the most important quality, others will help you if you are in trouble, and, in the end, the good are rewarded and the evil characters are punished, often in a funny way, like the witch-turned-frog, sentenced to curse for ever at the fish who caused her downfall (from ‘The Witch in the Broom Cupboard’, my favourite story).
And there’s another reason why this book was my favourite as a child. Adults seemed to love The Good Little Devil too! This is a fairly essential quality for a book when you’re still at pre-reading age and constantly fine-tuning your negotiating skills to get more stories read to you. My parents laughed at all the stories, sometimes at parts I wasn’t finding funny, and the book was definitely popular with schoolteachers, who actually still use it to this day to teach French children to read. I myself first discovered the book in a reading session at a local bookshop, and I’d heard the stories many times before I could read them myself.
The Good Little Devil and Other Tales is the one book I’d recommend to any child of any age, from any country. The book has already been passed on from generation to generation since the ‘60s and has travelled all around the world, even making it to China. I’m very happy it’s finally made it into English. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did and that you get to know the crazy, merry Prince Blub, Lustucru, the Giant With Red Socks, and all the other characters in this wonderful collection of tales…
Many thanks Stephanie for taking the time to tell us about how much you obviously cherish The Good Little Devil. There is no better book promotion than hearing someone speak about it with passion.
All illustrations © Puig Rosado
Source: review copy from publisher