39 – ‘Les Récrés du Petit Nicolas’ by René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé

After the recent traumatic tales of the darker side of childhood, I thought it would be nice to finish off a trilogy of kid-lit (my copyright, if there’s any money in it) with a short book concentrating on the sunnier side of being young. ‘Les Récrés du Petit Nicolas’ is a French book about a young boy and the adventures he has at school with his friends. Just as in ‘What Maisie Knew’, the reader sees events through the eyes of the title character, but in this book, the child’s lack of understanding of what adults say and think is substantially more light-hearted.

The seventeen short stories, supplemented by black and white sketches of major scenes, only take up about 120 pages (it is a kid’s book, after all!), but Goscinny, who was also involved in the creation of another French icon, Asterix, manages to pack a wide variety of stories and emotions into such a small space. Most of the humour comes from Nicolas’ attempts to interpret the language, both verbal and non-verbal, of adults, something he usually manages to get ever-so-slightly (but always amusingly) wrong. For example, when, after a hellish day chasing around after a class of screaming kids at the art gallery, Nicolas’ teacher says that she never wants to see another painting in her life, our young hero understands why she is so unhappy; she obviously doesn’t like art and never wanted to go to the gallery in the first place. Nicolas also shows himself to be very trusting of what his parents tell him; he talks about a present his father received from his mother, a green-and-red tie which he never wears because he doesn’t want to get it dirty…

While the stories are very funny, there are also some very touching scenes. When Nicolas, along with all his friends, catches a tadpole and takes it home, his mother demands that it leave the house immediately (otherwise she will!). It is up to Nicolas’ father to gently persuade his son to take the tadpole back to the pond, explaining that the mummy frog will be missing her baby, just as Nicolas’ mummy would miss him if someone took him away in a jam jar. Another example is the final story of the book, where Nicolas attends a prize-giving ceremony marking the end of the school year and the last thing between him and the long-awaited school holidays. Only when the ceremony is over, and all his friends have gone away for the summer, does he realise that he won’t see them for the next few months and that he is going to be all alone over the holidays. And then he starts crying…

I’ve read this book (and a couple of other Nicolas collections) several times, and I love the idea of the endless childhood and long-forgotten school days. Whenever I read about Alceste (always with a pain-au-chocolat in his hand), Eudes (permanently ready to start a fight), Clotaire (usually asleep in class) and Agnan (the teacher’s pet who needs to keep his glasses on if he is to avoid being set upon by the other kids), it takes me back to the simplicity and innocence of my own childhood. Being grown up has its advantages (and I definitely enjoy not having to sit in detention!), but occasionally I miss running around playing football in the playground, talking to my friends in the bitingly-cold wind and waiting for the bell to ring us back into the classroom. Happy days.

2 thoughts on “39 – ‘Les Récrés du Petit Nicolas’ by René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé

  1. I think I did read it as a teenager at school, but with the television show on constantly, it's hard to be sure 😉

    I love Nicolas though, and I'm sure I've got a couple more of these somewhere in my parents' house back in England 🙂


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