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Le Petit Nicolas: a How-To for Child's POV

Last summer when visiting Montreal, I stayed in an apartment rented by a young man who’s a native of the city, and the shelves were stocked with books from his own library. I tried to tackle one by Mordecai Richler (When in Montreal…), but was having trouble with the French. Then I noticed some children’s books from the series Le Petit Nicolas by Jean-Jacques Sempé and René Goscinny. On the inside covers, in careful grade-school script, my host had inscribed his name and the name of his elementary school. I was immediately charmed!

The books are early chapter books, perfect for my level of language study. Introduced in 1959, they’re collections of stories narrated by a schoolboy, the eponymous Nicolas, who’s a hoot, irrepressible. As I writer, I’m so impressed with the spot-on rendering of the child’s point of view. The first person narration never strays from a schoolboy’s vantage; run-on sentences mirror a child’s runaway thoughts and speech patterns, and Nicolas’s logic is drolly young and quirky. Before I left Montreal, I bought myself a stack of Le Petit Nicolas titles. Now, every night before I go to sleep, I read one of the stories.

Some of the vocabulary I've picked up from Nicolas: le terrain vague (the vacant lot where they play les cow-boys), le chouchou de la maîtresse (teacher's pet), un coup de poing sur le nez (a punch in the nose, what they would like to do to the teacher's pet, but he's wearing des lunettes). Even when I re-read these stories, I’m all smiles.