WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 3

Life as It Comes
Written by Anne-Laure Bondoux
Delacorte Books, 2008, 211 pp.
ISBN: 978-0440239697

“I watch Patty as she chews her gum. Her mouth opens, closes, distorts. In the silent apartment, the spongy noise of her mastication marks the passage of time like the ticktock of a clock” (p. 1).

 

 

Thus begins the story of Life as It Comes, an adolescent novel set in France. The book tells the story of two French sisters, Mado, who is fifteen years old, and Patty, who is twenty years old, as they struggle to make their way in life. The two sisters stick together, soon finding that their lives will become intertwined forever.

Although Patty is the older sister, she is more carefree. Mado, the younger sister, is the “brainy” one. The sisters are orphans; their parents died in a car accident in the south of France the year before. Patty goes to Amsterdam to have an abortion, but she is too far along in her pregnancy. For two weeks in August, the sisters go to the family vacation home in the Ardèche, a region in southern France. While there, Patty gives birth to her baby boy. One morning, Mado wakes up to find that Patty has left for destinations unknown. When Luigi, Patty’s ex-boyfriend, arrives looking for her, he discovers he is now a father. They go in search of Patty, finally locating her in Paris. Luigi decides he wants to keep the baby, and so he and Patty share custody. Mado ends the book by realizing that despite all its toils, life is worth living: “One of the things I’ve learned lately: even through hard times, life is worth it” (p. 209).

The story in Life as It Comes revolves around each character’s inner struggles to resolve competing loyalties. Patty wants to live a carefree existence while also realizing that she must take care of her younger sister. Mado wants to be able to live her own life while also realizing that she needs to be responsible for the baby. Luigi is torn between being a father to his newborn son and rekindling his relationship with Patty. The characters in this book struggle to find their way in life while also coping with the problems life throws at them. Despite their struggles, each character finds moments of peace and happiness within the chaos that is their lives.

Life as It Comes has qualities that are specific to French culture and other qualities that are universal in nature. In the story there are specific references to French culture. Some of the names in the book are French (Mado, Judicaëlle), and the names of other characters are names used in both France and other countries (Patty, Olivia, Maude, Sabrina, Luigi). Several places in both Paris (the Butte de Monmartre, the Eiffel Tower Aubervilliers, La Chapelle, the Seine) and France (Ardèche, Lille, Nanterre, Senlis, Pas-de-Calais) are mentioned as well as several French food items (brioche, pain au chocolat). The overall plot of the story, however, is common not only in France but in many other countries as well. Bondoux does a great job of combining elements that are specific to France and French culture with other elements that are more universal.

This book can be paired with other books by the same author, including The Killer’s Tears (2007), a story of a young Chilean boy who is orphaned and taken care of by his parents’ murderer, and A Time of Miracles (2010), a story about a seven-year-old boy who flees with his caretaker during the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book can also be paired with other books on characters who struggle with family relationships, including The Pull of the Ocean (Jean-Claude Mourlevat, 2009), a modern-day version of Tom Thumb, Ask Me No Questions (Marina Tamar Budhos, 2007), the story of a fourteen-year-old Bangladeshi girl living as an undocumented person in New York, and Skinny (Ibi Kaslik, 2006), the story of a twenty-two-year-old girl who seems to have a full life but underneath experiences many problems based on her relationship with her deceased father.

Anne-Laure Bondoux was born in a suburb surrounding Paris in 1971 and lives there today with her two children. She received her degree in modern letters at the University of Paris X-Nanterre. She has created writing workshops for children in urban areas. In addition to the titles mentioned above, Bondoux is the author of other books about children–The Destiny of Linus Hoppe (2006), and The Second Life of Linus Hoppe (2007).

Brian Hibbs
University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

9 thoughts on “WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 3

  1. Pingback: Mirror
  2. Monique Stone says:

    After reading the commentary about Mirror- I was very curious about how my Moroccan student would respond. I mentioned that it was all rural- and didn’t that bother her? She said to me very quickly- Did you read this part? The writer explains that she only just happened to travel in the rural parts. This book is really good”

    I teach English as a Second Language in the South Western United States. I have several students from North Africa. Many are young and are quite homesick. I decided to see how they might respond to representations of their cultures in children’s books available in the United States. I did not have enough lead up time to do justice to an explanation of cultural authenticity, so I used questions such as, do you think this book is fair? do you think this book is good? Should I read this book to my son to teach him about your country?

    I can’t say that one student from Morocco can completley decide the authenticity of a text, but her approval for my son’s library means a lot to me.

  3. Yun-Hui Tsai says:

    I remember when I read Yenika-Agbaw’s “Images of West Africa in Children’s Books: Replacing Old Stereo-types with New Ones?” in the book “Stories matter: the complexity of cultural authenticity in children’s literature”, she argued that “a fair comparison would have been to compare urban life and children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds in both regions”. however, at that time, my first, shallow reflection was that “there is no such thing as a ‘fair’ comparison”, since these two kinds of kids/lives do exist in this world, so would this kind of comparison. I was wrong. And I am glad I realized that. By reading the book Mirror and this review I now understand that authors of children’s literature should keep in mind that their works have the impact deeper than we imagine, therefore they must possess the social responsibility to provide authentic and non stereotype stories to their young readers, who have less knowledge and sensitivity to read critically. I was really impressed that there are so many similarities the Baker designed in the book, even the color of each family member’s clothes, that makes readers connect two countries almost effortlessly. However I also noticed that if Baker didn’t choose to portray them this way, this book could inevitably end up in just another “unfair” comparison. This is such a outstanding book with beautiful illustrations and noble themes. But just because it’s so success and wild recognized, we should also pay more attention on its influence, either positive or negative.

  4. Taylor Yagow says:

    I think this review is really exceptional! The respect she shows for both cultures is great! I especially enjoyed her interruptions of the differences and yet the main purpose of the book Mirror was to focus on similarities as what connect all of us. I found some books that I thought would go well alongside Mirror, “Why I Love Australia” by Bronwyn Bancroft, Bundle of Secrets: Savita Returns Home by Mubina Hussanti Kimani and Ikenna Goes to Nigeria by Ifeomas Onyefulu. These are just other suggestions. I personally liked these three because they go into the cultures that Mirror compares in a child friendly way.
    I found Mirror to be a beautiful book with extraordinary illustrations. It really made me think about the stereotypes that we all make and that our similarities are really what hold us together.

  5. Annette Fiedler says:

    I found this review of Mirror expressed wonderfully; I enjoyed the intensive review and information provided here. I enjoyed this book greatly and felt that the images of the cultures told a beautiful story of culture and identity. The story that each side of the book represented was told in a way that children of all ages could understand. I brought this book into my classroom and my students’ had many questions, but the exposure to the literature was great. I am usually not a huge fan of wordless picture books but this one is one that grabbed my attention and I would like to do into depth more so with it and my future lessons in my classroom. There is a lot to expose our children to in this text and doing so will invite them into many different culture related discussions.

  6. I loved the design of this book! It was a “clever” way to capture my attention. I studied it forward and backwards the first day I had it because I was so intrigued with the design. This is a powerful book with a deep message, I thought, that shows we are all just people living life. In certain aspects we connect in the way that we live and in other aspects we don’t, but that is what makes it all so very interesting. The details of the illustrations are quite detail oriented. It certainly is a book that can be studied repeatedly and you will discover something interesting within the illustrations.
    The review is done nicely. I enjoyed reading her thoroughness of the book and that she reflected on the positives and slightly negatives. Authenticity is an important aspect that we have discussed throughout this semester. The reviewer discusses that the cultural authenticity was done correctly and portrays each culture accurately except for the magic carpet. I agreed with her. Usually there are words or situations that cause you to think that something does not seem right. I didn’t have that with Mirror. This is a great picture book to own!

  7. Dana Gray says:

    I enjoyed reading this review. I think the book Mirror was very unique and beautiful. The pictures were so crisp and naturally stunning. Baker obviously took great care and consideration in the images she chose to represent and compare. As the reader it was very apparent to me that her goal was to show similarities while highlighting differences. I think that this book could be appreciated for is central message and beautifully crafted images, we shouldn’t get too carried away with judging the book on its relevance and representation within a social-political responsibilities of the author.

    I do think that Short raised a good point, describing how the boy drew pictures of the magic carpets, and how that connection to Arabic is overdone and could be construed as negative. I did not view that as a negative quality.

    Overall this is a beautiful thought-provoking book that I will soon be adding to my library.

  8. Lanika Rodrigues says:

    I definitely enjoyed the book. Honestly, I believe it is more complex than many picture books I grew up with as a child and critiqued when I was old enough to babysit. The differences were actually what stood out most to me–the greater the differences, the more similar the families. For example, at the end of the story, when the Australian family settles in to enjoy some time away from the constant overflow of technology by the fireplace, while on the other hand, the rural, Moroccan family chooses this time to enjoy technology together as a family…it’s still family time, with the members enjoying each others’ company; it’s just done differently for the families. It reminds me of trying to read a book in a mirror: while a human face reflects exactly in a mirror, a book will always read backward in a mirror. This story’s ending example is no different: while there are places in the book where there are similarities between the cultures, it is still a fascinating joy to explore the differences, just as much as holding the book to the mirror.

    Because of such symbolic complexity expressed in this book, I see the lack of political societal structure representation as negligible, particularly when considering its main target audience. It is, after all, a PICTURE book, written for children whose parents and primary adult environments very likely teach stereotypes about people of foreign origin. Children in this case often see the attacked culture from very simple perspectives simply because ignorant perspectives are exactly that: simple. The author, therefore, appears to be using the very stereotypes (for example, the notorious “magic carpet”) to bring respect, rather than ridicule, to the different cultures. After all, when we look into a mirror, we might not always like what we see–yet often what we dislike about ourselves just might be what others see in us as beautiful. The book, the author, doesn’t focus on political structures because that isn’t the heart of the book. The heart of the book is to bring us back to the very simple truth: that no matter what our differences, at the end of the day, we are beautiful when we work together, especially when we work together to bring out the good in others, no matter how far away that may be.

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