A new book by the Montreal children's writer Christiane Duchesne is always a treat; one in English translation is a rarity. Duchesne is best known for her award-winning novels, such as La vraie histoire du chien de Clara Vic
(1990) and La bergère des chevaux
(1995), both published by Québec-Amérique. As Canada's nominee for the prestigious 1996 Hans Christian Andersen Award for a body of work, Duchesne deserves a wider readership in English. This translation of Qui a peur la nuit?
(Scholastic, 1996), though not as compelling as her novels, is a satisfying picture-book that should help raise her English-language profile.
Maurice is an inside cat who prides himself on his bravery. When he meets and befriends four outdoor cats, and recounts all the frightening sights he sees at night, they are amazed that he is not afraid. Only when he ventures out into the stormy night to find his friends does he experience just how scary it is out there. And he readily admits to his friends that he was afraid-for them.
Though the emphasis here is on dealing with night fears, it's not quite what one might expect from the title. The message is not that there's nothing to fear, but rather that one's fears are well-founded. However, Maurice isn't overwhelmed by fear; he is able to set aside his night thoughts to enjoy the sunrise. This seems a healthy approach for a well-rounded cat. It also provides a nicely circular and upbeat ending, as the book starts and concludes with a sunrise.
Young children will enjoy the not-too-scary night shadows, and the many imaginative details and movement of Barrette's large, colourful watercolours. The illustrations brighten up a book design overly dependent on boxes. Children always notice when the pictures don't match the words, and will doubtless point out that Maurice carries only one baguette in his mouth when the text says he brings five. (A cat's mouth can hold only so much, but surely a resourceful cat like Maurice could have returned with a basket holding all five small loaves.) This is the first English- language book Doris Barrette has illustrated, but she's no neophyte, having more than ten books in French to her credit.
David Homel offers his usual seamless translation. Just one small quibble: in the original, the four cats who live outside are not only homeless but nameless; in the English, Maurice names them Bruiser, Stripes, Skinny, and Little Tail. Emotions always figure strongly in Duchesne's stories; her description of this easily frightened group containing "le gros, le petit, la rayure et le maigre" has a tenderness missing from the English, making the French fraidy-cats more pathetic than their English counterparts. But the English version works well on its own terms, and should charm four- to seven-year-olds. l
Annette Goldsmith is a Toronto children's librarian and reviewer.