A good children’s book should have intensity...
29 сентября 2021 689 Читать на русском

Clementine Beauvais was seventeen when she moved from France to Great Britain to start her studies at Cambridge University. Thirteen years later, she’s a popular literature blogger and the author of many books for children, teenagers, and young adults. Beauvais is also an English-to-French translator, university lecturer, and researcher in the field of the sociology and philosophy of childhood.

Clementine Beauvais was in Moscow toward the end of 2018 to present her book In Paris With You [this book has been reviewed by one of Papmambook’s teenage authors]—a contemporary love story in verse, inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name [most recent English edition: Faber Faber, 2019. ISBN 9780571339723. Translated by Sam Taylor]. Papmambook’s Maria Kostyukevich was able to sit down with Clementine Beauvais to ask about her life in literature and academia and get her thoughts on what defines a “good book for teenagers.”

- Clementine, in Russia we have this idea that only a Russian reader can fully understand and appreciate Pushkin’s genius. Would you say that there are any French classics that only a French reader can truly understand and which are not worth trying to translate?

- Since I’m also a translator, in terms of cultural dialogue, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with an “inviolable” text. Many consider Proust, for instance, to be untranslatable. But that’s not true. When we read English translations of Proust, we see that they can be absolutely lovely. I think I’d put it like this: sometimes we feel such strong national pride for these texts that we start to believe they are sacrosanct. But I much prefer a situation where each of us, like a bee, can sip the nectar, if you will, of any culture, and be enriched by it. For me, as a constant consumer of international culture, that is the norm.

- Are novels in verse popular with teenagers in Europe?

- It’s currently a trend in the U.S. and England. It’s a very popular genre because the text is similar to rap and teenagers find this kind of poetry easy to read, as well as personally energizing and motivating. But in France I was the first to come out with this kind of book.

- Can you as a writer and professional researcher of children’s and teenage reading say what draws in today’s teenager readers?

- I don’t have some kind of “right” method, of course, but here’s what works in my experience: first, you’ve got to believe in the story you’re telling. We talk a lot about how teenagers tend to be sarcastic and reject certain established things. But the truth is that this age is also defined by a particular sincerity and that’s exactly what a teenager should find in books.

- No matter the gender?

- I’m generally against a gendered divide of readers. But teenage boys do read less overall. People say (and there’s truth to this) that boys identify more with male characters, while girls this age can identify both with girls or the opposite gender in stories.

- You’ve written nearly thirty books…

- I can’t say how many there are exactly. It’s just that there are picture books for little kids and books for teenagers. I have five or six young adult novels. And I also write short stories for the press.

- How do you plan your day so that you get around to everything? What does your workplace look like and how do you write?

- I teach at a university, so every day I wake up at six in the morning and I’m asleep by ten thirty, otherwise I won’t fit everything into my day. My workspace is just my computer. Wherever I am, I always take it with me. I can write in cafes or trains. There’s no internet on trains, so writing comes easy. I don’t have a particular writing routine, but sometimes I think I’d like to. There are weeks where I don’t write anything at all. I wrote my last novel, Brexit Romance, from seven to eight in the morning, and six to nine at night.

- What do you think defines a “good” children’s book?

- I would say it should have “intensity”—a sort of narrative power. The book should have a lot put into it, and a lot you can get out of it. It’s not a “hook” for readers, but the intensity of the experience that matters. The book could be three lines long, but it could be very intense from an emotional point of view.

When you’re a teenager, it often feels like the world is speaking to you. Children’s literature should carry within itself this new experience of living through certain life events. But that doesn’t mean it has to be dynamic in terms of its presentation. For example, we often laugh at first kisses. We kind of make fun of the experience. But if we’re to be honest with ourselves and remember what we experienced at the time, it’s clear that there are few sensations that could compare in intensity. I think the mission of young adult literature is to convey experience in its full intensity, just as it’s lived.

- When you were a teenager, did you have books that gave you that sense of a new lived experience?

- These books don’t have to be universally acknowledged in terms of great writing. But I have to say that Marie-Aude Murail’s books were incredibly important to me and she writes such powerful stories. Philip Pullman’s books are undeniably classics. The scene of the first kiss in his The Amber Spyglass was incredibly intense, just amazingly vivid and well-written. Nabokov’s Lolita was something of a literary shock. It was the first time I’d encountered an unreliable narrator of this kind, someone who was literally pushing me off the path he’d set up, as though tricking me. When I read the beginning of Harry Potter, when he runs through the wall and ends up in a different world—that left a very strong impression.

- Would you say you’re one of those people that grew up on Harry Potter?

- Yes, when the first book came out, I was about nine or ten years old, a true preteen, and the last book was published when I was eighteen. Harry Potter is actually the reason I learned English. When the fourth book came out, I had to wait four months for it to be translated. And I couldn’t wait, so of course I read it with a dictionary. I read and reread it, and in the end I started speaking English.

I’ve actually always loved children’s and young adult literature. I’m thinking Astrid Lindgren, and Rene Goscinny with his Little Nicolas series, and so many other books. When I was little I used to say that I wanted to write books for children. When I was 14 or 15 I was reading, let’s say, Nabokov on Monday, Astrid Lindgren on Tuesday, and Pullman on Wednesday and Thursday. I feel that young adult literature has this unique appeal in that it can give the reader an aesthetic experience that adult literature cannot.

- Are there any topics that are taboo when it comes to your writing? Things you wouldn’t want to write about?

- Honestly, I don’t have any taboos. Still, I don’t have it in me to write about things that haven’t touched my life personally. That’s especially true when it comes to very sensitive topics like violence or pedophilia. I don’t know how to speak to that. I would feel like I was lacking legitimacy as a narrator. I’d feel like a provocateur, writing a story on demand just to attract attention.

- Russian publishers are required by law to place age restrictions on books. Have you ever come across anything like that in your work? Are French or English readers in any way shielded from literature that’s not “age-appropriate”?

- We have an equivalent law of sorts. It’s a post-war law from 1949 that states that books directed at young people shouldn’t contain topics that are difficult to process, and most importantly should not deny a reader hope. No one, of course, pays any attention to this law, but that’s not to say there’s no censorship in French society. There are always these small groups of fundamentalists or religious activists that will attack certain books. They get indignant, write something up in their press, start petitions, and ask for the book to be removed. But a democratic government protects freedom of speech, so writers are protected by the government by law. Of course each country has its own issues in that regard.

- What country censored In Paris With You the most?

- The text was heavily “edited” in England—and it’s not clear why they felt that was necessary. The publishers thought that the way that Eugene tries to “woo” Tatiana and get her attention was too sensual and too sexual. Last year in England there were mass feminist campaigns against sexual violence. After these events, the publishers said that Eugene’s behavior could be seen as a predatorу attitude toward a woman. I think there’s a huge difference between how Americans, English people, and the French perceive sexual and romantic relationships. What I call “looking at a woman with erotic interest,” they consider objectification, meaning that Tatiana becomes a thing, rather than a person. My English publishers said Eugene had to stop looking at her like a piece of meat. I don’t see Tatiana that way. I wouldn’t call this censorship, but it is a huge difference in understanding and different cultural norms.

- What was the topic of your doctoral dissertation?

- My dissertation was on children’s picture books with a political element—books about revolution, feminism, environmentalism, combating racism. That political aspect was very strong in the children’s literature of the 1940s and 1950s. Then for some time it disappeared altogether and was no longer in view. I felt it was important to show that that interest transferred from adult literature into children’s literature and that new books for kids have, essentially, that same component, and the author’s approach is the same as in the best-known novels for adults.

- Do your parents read all your books?

- My mom reads everything, she’s my first reader, and I have to say she’s a strict and harsh one. She really follows my work and gives me feedback in terms of my writing style. My mom doesn’t come from a literary background at all, but at heart she’s a real publisher and sometimes she finds interesting topics.

- Does your mom read your books once they’re already published, or do you show her the drafts?

- Yes, she can edit certain things in a draft, too. Once we were on vacation together. I was writing in sections and sending the chapters to both my publisher and my mother. She hated Lensky’s tirade, for example, and demanded that I rework it. She doesn’t always have a particular sensibility, but sometimes she hits the nail right on the head and can identify exactly what needs to be done.

Dad, on the other hand, doesn’t follow my writing as closely, but he’s the perfect reader. When he reads my books, he often says: “That was excellent, dear!”

Interview by Maria Kostyukevich
French interpretation by Irina Balakhanova
Photo by Vasilisa Solovieva
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Book cover image: faber.co.uk

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