petite anglaise

May 3, 2005


Filed under: city of light, Tadpole rearing — petiteanglaiseparis @ 11:52 am

The children’s library on the rue Fessart is accessible only via a steep flight of stairs. Predictably there is no sign of a lift. The adult’s library is, I note, located in an identical room on the ground floor. Sighing, I free the Tadpole from her pushchair harness (which she insists on calling a “strap-on”). By the time I have got the pushchair folded, she is already half-way up the stairs and my heart is in my mouth as she turns to laugh at me, teetering precariously on the edge of a step. I race to catch her up, wishing that simple canine commands like “sit” or “stay” or “heel” would have some effect on my wilfully independent daughter. As it is, I say “stand still” and she hears “run for the hills!”

The children’s library is not vast, but there is a well-stocked and thoughtfully enclosed toddler’s section, furnished with chairs for little people and slightly grubby looking animal cushions strewn about the floor.

I approach the young man seated at the front desk, who has his nose in a book, and takes far too long to actually look up and say hello, without the merest hint of a smile. He has a something unsightly dangling from his left nostril, and his long hair, which looks as though he combed olive oil through it this morning, is gathered into a ragged pony tail.

I explain that I would like to enrol Tadpole in the library, and he sullenly hands me a form. How I hate myself for smiling back at him. Regardless of whether or not my naturalisation application is successful, I know that I will never manage the unsmiling, aloof attitude that most Parisians seem to affect in such situations. My inane grinning and eagerness to chat with complete strangers in shops will forever betray my foreignness and put me at a cultural disadvantage, however French I might manage to sound.

I suppose I should be thankful for small mercies: at least obtaining a library card for Tadpole does not require me to produce my birth certificate, backed with an apostille and accompanied by a certified translation. Or a copy of my criminal record. Tadpole’s ID card suffices, just as the lady had told me over the phone. (I had still brought utility bills and the livret de famille though, just in case. I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that anything involving the French administration could really be that simple.)

Library card in hand, I plonk myself down on a dusty ladybird cushion and set to examining the books in the ‘foreign’ section, while Tadpole rearranges the furniture energetically, seemingly having missed the point of why we are here and showing no interest whatsoever in the books which surround her. Of the 120 foreign tomes of which the municipal libraries’ internet site boasted, I note that three quarters are in Hanzi or Kanji or some other Asian language, with the covers on back to front. We live a stone’s throw from the Belleville Chinatown, and this library caters to its residents, so I suppose that was only to be expected.

As we are running a little late for our lunchtime rendez-vous with Negrito and his friends, I hastily choose a couple of Maisy books (in French: Mimi la souris) and a book about a busy spider, by the author of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’. If Mr Frog isn’t home for story time, I will read them in English, which will be useful for practising my off the cuff translation skills, if nothing else.

For the rest of the weekend I am disproportionately pleased with myself for having enrolled Tadpole in the library. I think it is because I have such fond memories of library visits as a child. My mother maintains that she taught me to read before my first sister was born (i.e. shortly before my third birthday) and from that moment on I was unstoppable. I started school a year early, and raced through the reading scheme at breakneck speed.

As there was no way my parents could have financed my fifteen-a-week habit, we came to frequent many libraries over the years. Once I had exhausted the possibilities of the children’s section in our village library, staffed by elderly ladies in cashmere twin sets and irreproachable nasal hygiene, I was allowed to borrow books from the adult section using my mothers library card, even though I was underage. I used my father’s card too. Then we graduated to a bigger library in York itself. At any one time, there would be no less than a dozen library books stacked up next to my bed.

One of the reasons my eyesight is now so poor is that from a very early age (four or five years old I reckon) I used to read in secret after lights out, straining to decipher the words in the orange glow of the streetlamp outside my bedroom window, or leaving my door ajar to catch a sliver of light from the bathroom. If I was under the spell of a favourite book, there was no question of stopping before I had reached the end.

I do hope Tadpole will grow up to be a bookworm too, and not a philistine like Mr Frog.


  1. I am sure with your guidance Petite, Tadpole will be a little bilingual bookworm in no time at all.

    I also have fond memories of visits to the local libraries- the cosy local branch with its musty shelves and mustier assistants, or, for a specially exciting outing, a Saturday morning at the junior section of Newcastle Central. I would devour the works of Dr Seuss while my little sister crawled, tadpole like, around the miniature plastic furniture. Now both of us are avid readers- which I think goes to show the value of such early immersion in the world of words and pop-up pictures.

    Comment by jonathan — May 3, 2005 @ 12:22 pm

  2. Best of luck. My oldest is nine and I’m still hoping. So far only Harry Potter has kept his nose glued to a book for longer than 10 minutes.

    Comment by David — May 3, 2005 @ 2:52 pm

  3. Baby bookworm rebels abound then! I used to read under the covers by the light of the digits on my electronic clock after “lights out”. It’s no surprise then that I ended up with glasses age 13. I would advise steering tadpole well clear of this habit!

    As for reading during the day, I think library habits have plenty going for them in terms of getting kids hooked. When one gets bored of the animal cushions…one generally discovers the books!

    Sorry, one too many !s. I must learn to refrain from getting overexcited about books…

    Comment by pixiek — May 3, 2005 @ 3:26 pm

  4. Did you have to pay to join? All the libraries around here (Rennes) charge a fee, even for a child’s card.

    Comment by l'autre — May 3, 2005 @ 3:29 pm

  5. Maybe next time you want her to read you should take her somewhere like a… furniture store!

    Then, instead of arranging cushions (as she did at the library) the little rebel in her will WANT to READ.

    Comment by sammy — May 3, 2005 @ 3:29 pm

  6. I was thrilled when I found a book and flashlight hidden by my daughter’s bed.

    The funny thing is, that’s about the only time she DOES like to read.

    Comment by Bluegrass Mama — May 3, 2005 @ 3:42 pm

  7. I work in a library during the summer running children’s programs that encourage them to read by offering prizes. (after having read their 1st, then 6th etc)Most of the kids that I work with LOVE to read, and I think part of the reason is that learning to read for them was easy and als because their parents read to them when they were younger and began their love of books.
    I think that if you read to Tadpole now and as long as she sits through the stories, there is no doubt that eventually she will want to read them herself.
    Also if you allow her to read what she wants it will make the books more memorable to her. ( even if you have picked out 10 books and you want her to choose just 2 from those)

    Comment by Tijanana — May 3, 2005 @ 3:45 pm

  8. Petite – after reading the last couple of posts, I think you are me. Well, except for the fact that you live in France and I live in the US, and you’re at least 10 years younger and a much better writer. So much of what you write strikes such a chord I always have a tough time writing brief responses.

    I remember the days when Princess would rather play with the stuffed animals at the library than look at the books. Now age 5 she begs to go to the library to get books on things like “why the sky doesn’t fall down” and goes to bed at night with a pile of books on her bed :-) I let her leave the light on and read as long as she wants rather than force her to read in the dark the way my mum did with me.

    Comment by Susan — May 3, 2005 @ 3:53 pm

  9. One of the reasons I like going to the swimming pool near work at lunchtimes is because the changing room lady is so friendly and helpful. Such a contrast to most of French officialdom, it’s so easy to smile, and they just can’t do it.

    Comment by Lauren — May 3, 2005 @ 4:15 pm

  10. I was relieved to hear that it’s not just we Yanks that have that problem with automatic smiling to strangers in public, and being at odds with the French habit of never smiling until they have apparently known you for years. I know it’s just a cultural difference but it is very disconcerting when you experience it in action. (Mental note to self: when in Paris and having an overwhelming need to smile, seek out a native English-speaker.)

    Comment by Lisa — May 3, 2005 @ 4:20 pm

  11. Friday nights once a month and a trip in the car from small farm to big city to get books. Highlights of my life!

    Best birthday present? A torch, guaranteed to induce that delicious rebellion of reading after lights out.

    These day’s it’s blogging by screenlight that induces the same feelings!

    Comment by deeleea — May 3, 2005 @ 4:29 pm

  12. Although I mostly read “unchallenging” stuff these days (step forward Colin Bateman, Iain Banks et al), I had the full-on library experience as a kid. Two things made it weird: one was that Bury Knowle Library in Oxford was not only the scene of my first brush with the literary greats such as Phyllis Ladyman (How it works: The Motor Car), but also the scene of my first kicking at the hands (feet, surely?) of a bully. Mixed memories. The second thing was that after getting into my reading stride (9 I guess), my family moved to a tiny village in a very Welsh-speaking part of Wales, and I found it really hard to find interesting books in a language I could understand. No prizes for guessing the origins of my obsessive desire for bilingual kids…

    By the way, l’autre, you mean you’ve found a decent library in Rennes? Do tell!

    Comment by Jim in Rennes — May 3, 2005 @ 4:41 pm

  13. I used to read before, after and sometimes during lessons at school as well as at breaktimes and when i wasnt doing anything in P.E. Now I’m at uni I have to restrict reading of non-historical books to holidays to make sure I keep up with all the reading for the course. And I can never start a new book in the late afternoon/early evening because I know I won’t sleep till it’s finished

    Comment by Ellie — May 3, 2005 @ 5:18 pm

  14. Jim – nope, haven’t found a decent library, so we didn’t join one (plus I resent paying, but that’s just my British principles). We only use them occasionally for reference and for doing homework when not at home. As my children and I prefer reading in English and my own Mr Frog reads at the pace (and the frequency) of the proverbial French snail, we don’t have much need for libraries in Rennes, which is probably just as well if they are all as bad as you say!

    Comment by l'autre — May 3, 2005 @ 5:19 pm

  15. It’s important to teach a child early to love and respect books. Tadpole will discover now a completely new world and as far as you are concerned, soon you will not have to read to her before bed. Good thing for both of you!
    Glance at this site, it could help you with reading lessons.

    Comment by KitKat — May 3, 2005 @ 7:02 pm

  16. When I was a wee easyjetsetter, my parents did the leaving me in the library for hours thing too to try and help me learn to read, but what really did it for me was audio books: a large part of my reading was developed, to a fairly high level at a fairly young age (my mum says I was three as well) by reading along with audio books. The worst witch was my favourite.

    Comment by EasyJetsetter — May 3, 2005 @ 7:26 pm

  17. I know a library in Paris where the children section is on the ground floor and the librarians smile, inform, help and advise you. And they seem to enjoy it “pour de vrai”.

    I frequent that place with my devils.

    By the way, your card gives you access to all the public library in Paris and you can authorize tadpole even is she is just a toddler to borrow books in the adult section.

    You have been unlucky.

    Comment by Marie-Hélène — May 3, 2005 @ 7:52 pm

  18. Bring tadpole often to the library, and sooner or later, she’ll get addicted to it. That’s what happened to me.

    I was like you too, went through 20 books a week, and had to use my mother’s card to borrow all of the books I wanted ..

    I don’t understand how anyone can live without the library … o_O

    Comment by Janey — May 3, 2005 @ 9:24 pm

  19. Oh yes, how I hope my little tadpoles will be bookworms too, not telly addicts like their dad.

    Did you get the Library Van coming round your way when you were little? Monday evenings and Wednesday afternoons were exciting moments in my south manchester street of suburban semis, when it would come and park by the bus stop at our local block of shops. It used to sway when you climbed up the steps to it. Oh happy days…

    Comment by smartie — May 3, 2005 @ 10:15 pm

  20. PAY? You have to pay to join public libraries in Rennes? Not here mate.

    Although I would gladly have paid if it meant not having to deal with Mr Bogey Man.

    Of course, we have a veritable library at home too, says the woman who spent €70+ in WHSmiths today when she only went “for a birthday card”… I just fancy a bit more variety and I like the ritual aspect of librarygoing.

    Comment by petite — May 3, 2005 @ 11:11 pm

  21. I too am addicted to the library, otherwise I could not afford my habit – or I simply would not have a life. My nearly 4 year old son also now loves to read and when we go the library he chooses a couple of books for himself which promptly get hidden by his numerous books in his bookshelf at home.
    Happy reading.

    Comment by Jen — May 4, 2005 @ 1:37 am

  22. When I lived in Paris, the public library partially cured my homesickness with Terry Pratchett – translated absolutely brilliantly into French – and Wodehouse (in English, thank goodness).

    The title of the book whose image you’ve used at the beginning of the post translates to “Bunny and Baby.”

    I’ve been a bookworm since I was four, and what did it was being constantly surrounded by books of all sorts and seeing – and sometimes hearing – my parents read them. That does seem to be the most basic formula.

    Comment by Momo — May 4, 2005 @ 1:50 am

  23. As a teacher, I can tell you that the first step to cultivating a little bookworm is to simply give your child access to books. Your interest in them, will interest her. Show her the print, when she seems to recognise that is where you are getting the story from. Letters and letter sounds follow…….at least, thats the story in English!!

    Bonjour from Australia! :)

    Comment by Kasey — May 4, 2005 @ 2:45 am

  24. Thank God for schoolteacher parents! Hanging around after school waiting for dad (actually, sometimes not all that great having your dad work at the same school you attend!) meant that I could access the school library after hours and read what I wanted – and borrow it on HIS CARD – an UNLIMITED NUMBER OF BOOKS teachers card!!!!!!!! I’m 34 and it still excites me! I was so thrilled to hear you had already enrolled Tadpole in the library – my little nephew has loved ‘weading’ from an early age (he’s only 20 months now) and will regularly disappear into a corner with a book to wead. Obviously, he can’t, but he sits and turns the pages in the right order, gets upset if you skip pages when reading to him, and looooves his story times – good on you!

    Comment by Miss Lisa — May 4, 2005 @ 7:44 am

  25. I was very much like you Petite, reading in the dark, reading in the bath, reading as much as I could and making everyone in the family get a card from the library so I could read 12 books a week! However my brother who has been raised by the same parents has always hated reading, at age 27 I don’t think he’s read a whole one (I know for a fact he cheated on his French litterature classes). To the despair of both my parents who are both avid readers. I’ll have a hard time if I don’t pass this passion on to my offsprings , unfortunately with BF being very similar to brother, it could happen…. [sigh]. It is so important to me that I considered breaking up with BF when I realised he didn’t read. 4 years down the track it still bothers me a lot if only because I can’t share this big part of my daily life with him.
    Good luck with Tadpole, she is in good hands. And if she gets bored with reading in French she can switch to English.

    Comment by Maurine au bout du monde — May 4, 2005 @ 8:05 am

  26. Wow Petite I loved this post! It reminds me, naturally, like all the other commenters are saying, of my own book-mad childhood. I read under the covers, I consumed 20 books a week, I WHEEDLED rides to the library from my mother with amazing guile.

    Now I can barely get through the Best Dresses section of In Style before falling asleep!

    Comment by Chanelbaby — May 4, 2005 @ 5:31 pm

  27. Yet another bookworm story: When I was 10 I used to read until midnight every day. My parents tried and failed to get me to turn the light off at 10:30. Eventually my dad removed the fuse controlling my bedroom. I countered by stealing his flashlight… Dad, in his wisdom, gave up the fight. I owe my perfect eyesight to this decision.

    Comment by ontario frog — May 4, 2005 @ 10:10 pm

  28. I’m happy to say that my two daughters seem to have caught the reading bug that bit me at a very early age. My eldest, who is 8, actually sets her alamrm clock earlier than she needs to in the morning, just so that she get get some quality reading-time in before breakfast!

    Comment by Iain — May 5, 2005 @ 1:19 am

  29. Tail Lights…

    I know!…

    Trackback by Tail Lights — October 10, 2007 @ 11:09 pm

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