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Profound Nonsense, The Little Prince and Claude Ponti

Over many beautiful, useful, proper and reasonably successful children’s books listed in the New York Times list of best sellers, I would recommend any opus out of the weird and impressive bibliography of French-born contemporary writer and illustrator Claude Ponti.

The Little Prince - 3 BaobabsThere’s hardly any redeeming value to the winding stories written and drawn by Ponti. His universes can seem dark at times, in a Terry Gilliamesque sort of way, almost, – and I usually can’t tell what any one of his books is really about. Maybe because of that, publishers and translators get scared away, and Claude Ponti is not particularly famous outside of France – yet. But I predict that his books will be celebrated around the world before this decade is over, and for a long time after that.

Through April 27, 2014, The Morgan Library hosted an insightful exhibit titled: “The Little Prince: A New York Story” , which set the record straight about the French literary icon and its surprising beginnings on the East Coast of the United States. It turns out that the very first edition of “Le Petit Prince” was… in English.

The result of a (short)  lifetime of daydreaming by his war pilot/writer creator, the angel-like character  known to the entire world as Le Petit Prince  eventually got to inhabit his own story when Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a native of Lyon, found himself stranded in New York during the Nazi occupation of France, and finally put the eerie and lonely universe he was obsessing about on paper.

An excellent post by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker reflects on what makes the children book such an enduring masterpiece:

“…the book’s meanings—its purpose and intent and moral—still seem far from transparent, even seventy-five-plus years after its first appearance.”

Gopnik nailed it right there. The Disneyan approach to story-telling and the current trend in children books are entirely missing this mark. The endearing poetry and anguish of childhood are better captured and preserved for generations to come in the free evolution of imagination and a certain tolerance – or even love for – nonsense.

See Alice in Wonderland (Carroll’s book, of course) or the wonderfully zany universe of Dr. Seuss ; they are profound and masterful, but they never hammer down their intentions and clamor the redeeming values of their storytelling: their truth is to be experienced and felt, far more than spelled out.

A touching and beautiful, yet too transparent parable, Shel Silvertein’s “The Giving Tree” exemplifies an art form stretching from Aesop’s fables to Grimm’s fairy tales or today’s “Frozen”, that talks to children with the clear and definite purpose of teaching them something. That something will range from the value of sharing, for the most Christian ones to the proper way of pooping, for the most utilitarian and down-to-earth ones; that something will stretch from the unlikeliness of love at first sight and forever (The Blue Beard, Frozen) to the redeeming qualities of persistence (Dumbo, The Little Engine That Could and countless others). Eventually, awkward kids become handsome adults, justice is served, villains are defeated, all questions are answered, and we leave happily ever after.

Non content with being preachy, this reduction of the human experience to comforting and predictable narrative arcs also results in sweeping simplifications and deep sanitizing of immemorial and crucial teachings. Back in 1976 (in The Uses of Enchantment), the controversial yet insightful child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggested that traditional fairy tales, with the darkness of abandonment, death, witches, and injuries, allowed children to grapple with their fears in remote, symbolic terms. If they could read and interpret these fairy tales in their own way, Bettelheim believed, children would get a greater sense of meaning and purpose.  

By engaging with socially evolved stories, neither too preachy, “age-appropriate”, clean, nor obvious, children would go through emotional growth that would better prepare them for their own futures. It turns out that darkness, nonsense and lack of clear purpose do more for children – or adults, as it may – than straightforward tales.

And that’s why, over many beautiful, commendable, proper and reasonably successful children’s books, I prefer any pick from the impressive bibliography of French-born writer and illustrator Claude Ponti (Bio in French here). Get started with the insanely beautiful Ma Vallee, which lives in a neighboring universe to Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

From that scenic overlook, children’s books might never feel the same to you ever again.


Further readings:


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