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posted March 4, 2008
Rene Goscinny, Jean-Jacques Sempe, Anthea Bell
Phaidon, hardcover, 136 pages, 1960/2005, $19.95
0714845299 (ISBN10), 9780714845296 (ISBN13)
I wasn't prepared for how attractive this book was. The Nicholas figure you see above is set into the cover with glossy-looking colors that pop against the brown-grey mesh of the sturdy hardcover stock. The interiors of Nicholas
conform more grandly to expectation, in that one knows there will likely be a high number of Jean-Jacques Sempe cartoons as illustration and that they will almost all be gorgeous or funny or both. And they are. One of Sempe's great skills doing cartoons for magazines is portraying a big scene that turns on one central detail, which makes him perfectly suited for illustration involving a large number of people, with sometimes one or two placed in darker clothing or drawn with bolder lines to set them apart. Even the spot-style drawings are lovely to behold; Sempe gives his children a fragile energy that reveals itself in their sharper edges and the way their bodies lean.
The stories are charming, but one can envision their having trouble connecting with a modern audience. It's too verbally sophisticated for the younger readers that may be automatically interested in the goings on at school, any school, even one as obviously out of time and place as this one (the word "pomade" appears on the first page). On the other hand, the subject matter may be a little quaint for kids who are used to books that speak closer to the level of their chosen vernacular, or that replicate the overheated soap opera with which many kids regard their school settings -- a kind of melodrama the kids we meet in the book would find baffling. I would imagine Nicholas
is a book that is best read to a kid who is generous enough in mind and spirit to see the value in hearing about another country and another era. Any kid that's reading it would have to be smart enough to hold a lot of different ideas in their hands at the same time; these days it seems you get to be a smart kid for simply desiring to read. Luckily, we can all lean on the pictures a bit.