Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems (@The_Pigeon) is a rip-roaring, reassuring right-of-passage tale about one young child who is given the freedom and responsibility to undertake her first solo trip to a local shop.
Nanette is full excitement and the very best of intentions as she makes her way to buy a baguette. On the way home, however, temptation looms large, and the deliciously warm crusty bread meets a similar fate to that of Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake. Should Nanette own up to her Mother? She had a chance to show how big and grown up she is, but has she blown it?
Honesty, forgiveness, and maternal love (and laughter) no matter what give this highly-charged, energetic, and utterly hilarious tale, full of real life drama a pathos that the explosive blams and houdini-like rhymes may belie.
The startling and clever rigour of repeatedly rhyming ‘baguette’ throughout the text ups the anticipatory pressure with each page turn; As the linguistic temperature rises not only are we increasing concerned to see how things will turn out for Nanette, we also want to know whether Willems will pull off the linguistic feat he’s set himself. It’s a very clever way of subconsciously seeding a reader’s connection to the text, with each nimble rhyme acting like another lure the reader and listener on and on.
Willems’ use of models and collage gives a stop-motion, slightly old-worldly charm to his illustrations – a perfect match for a gently nostalgic idealisation of French village life. With plenty of high octane comic book dynamism bursting off many a spread, however, the charm never ossifies into rose-tinted quaintness.
Willem’s choice to depict Nanette and her family as frogs really intrigued me. It turns out my kids didn’t know of the use of “frogs” as a derogatory term for French people, but as an adult reader I felt somewhat uncomfortable with this choice of animal; don’t we as adults have a responsibility to think about the associations we perpetuate?
It got me thinking again about the ongoing debate amongst readers and writers about who is “allowed” to use what language about whom (though here we are of course talking about visual language, rather than actual words). What if Nanette and her family had been depicted as (cheese eating surrender) monkeys? What if the story had been about a family of cabbages (krauts) buying schnitzel? The recent film Sing! includes a family of (big black) gorillas, where the Dad is a gangsta, and the son is into hip hop. Is this stereotyping for the sake of a cheap gag? Or is it a knowing, post-ironic nod at our own prejudices?
I’m certain it was a conscious, knowing choice by Willems, and I’m sure it wasn’t meant than with anything other than a lot of love and respect; Willems has repeatedly spent long periods in France and is clearly very fond the country (do check out his illustrations for Diva and Flea: A Parisian Tale, written by Tony DiTerlizzi). When I asked two very good French friends of mine what they felt about Nanette and her family being depicted as frogs, they were rather startled I could even be worried it was an issue. “What is there to be upset about? The story is sweet, the depiction of a French provincial town rather endearing.”
With lots of food for thought, as well as more than a belly-full of laugh-out loud moments, Nanette’s Baguette is a feast in every regard. Eccentric, highly entertaining and wonderfully life-affirming this is a book to press urgently into people’s hands.
Taking inspiration from the models created by Mo Willems to create his illustrations, I re-drew many of the buildings in Nanette’s Baguette, creating our own cut-out-and-stick-together mini models of them, ready for colouring in. (If you watch the video above, you’ll see that Mo’s original models are much larger – more like the size of cereal boxes).
Once our street was ready, M re-drew Nanette and one of the other characters, Bret, with his clarinet.
Nanette and Bret cheered when they saw what the girls were baking on the other side of the kitchen…
… Yes! Baguettes! You bet!
And so it was that for lunch we sat down to freshly baked bread, joined by Nanette and her friends.
All I can say, is the baguettes, warm and smelling wonderful, didn’t last long!
If you would like to make your own set of Nanette’s Baguettes’ buildings you can download, print out and colour in the templates we made (I’ve checked that Mo is happy for me to share them 🙂 )
CLICK HERE FOR THE BUILDING TEMPLATES! (8 pages, pdf)
If you do make up Nanette’s village with these sheets, I’d love to see a picture.
Whilst having our lunch we listened to:
Other activities which could work well alongside reading Nanette’s Baguette include:
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by its publisher, Walker Books.
My thanks go to two especially lovely (French) friends (you know who you are!) for talking all about delicious bread (and more) with me.