By Ben and Maureen Tai, 7 June 2019
“I like it when it rains really hard, because then I don’t go to school and I can stay at home instead and play with my electric train set.” – Nicholas.
As a child, I adored the Asterix series, created by the French comics writer and editor, René Goscinny (1926-1977) . I would pore over the pages, chuckle at the antics of the rotund Obelisk and coo with delight whenever the spunky little terrier, Dogmatix, made his appearance. I wasn’t aware of Goscinny’s other children’s books until recently, when conducting a literary reconnaissance at Anna and Ben’s fabulous school library. Nicholas and the Gang (or in the native French, Le petit Nicolas et les copains) is one of a series of early/young reader children’s books about growing up in an idyllic and relatively uneventful 1950’s France. The humorous vignettes in each book, narrated from the point of view of the sensitive and kind-hearted Nicholas, are charming and old-fashioned without being anachronistic. Kudos to the translator, Anthea Bell, for imbuing the English translation with the child-like wonder and clever sarcasm – directed at adults – that Goscinny had intended. Don’t just take it from me. This is what Ben has to say.
B: Ugh. I don’t want to do it now.
M: I just have a few questions to ask you about this book. I’ll maybe give you some iPad time?
B: [gasps] Yah!
M: OK. What you think of this book that we have almost finished?
B: I think it’s funny and the pictures are interesting. In all of the stories, his gang of friends beat each other up.
M: Is it violent then?
B: Yeah, but not guns shooting or stuff like that. They always get told off by their teachers and supervisors and they have to write lines.
M: That’s kind of rough. At least they didn’t get caned. Can you tell me a bit about the characters in the book?
B: Nicholas is the main character, and he is the one that causes the mischief first. Then his friends do, and they get in trouble. I like Eddie because when someone says something bad about him, he punches them in the nose. Alec is the fat kid who always eats all the time, croissants during lessons and stuff like that. There is Geoffrey, Rufus and the teacher’s pet, Cuthbert.
M: Rufus sounds like a dog’s name to me. Well, what is the favourite story we’ve read so far?
B: The rainy day one, where they want to play dodgeball in the classroom and their teacher keeps coming in and telling them off.
M: What’s your favourite word or picture from the book?
B: Nimrod! It’s used in a bad way though, they call each other nimrods.
M: Have you ever been called a nimrod?
B: Yes, by you.
M: Oh, OK. I guess that’s my favourite word from the book too. I wonder what the original French word is. Last question. Do you have a favourite picture from the book?
B: [flipping pages] Here, this one from the rainy day story.
M: Thanks Ben.
B: So… when can I have my iPad time?
For ages 6 and up.