Reading guide for L’enfant Racine

by Kitty Crowther

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate 2010

Written by Agneta Edwards

About the author and illustrator

Is the Belgian picture book author Kitty Crowther (born in 1970) primarily an illustrator or an author? She herself prefers to call herself a storyteller and says that even if her only materials were sticks and stones, she would still have created stories. As a child, drawing provided Kitty Crowther with an important outlet and an opportunity to express herself, particularly as she was born with a hearing impairment. And she has taken the tools of the child, coloured pencils, with her into her work as an artist. With this simple medium Kitty Crowther creates light and shade, surface structures and light effects – see, for example, the many shades of black she gives the night in L’enfant racine (2003) and how some of the details seem to be almost luminous.

Kitty Crowther creates books for very small children, such as Alors? (2006), Scritch scratch dip clapote!(2002) and the series about Poka and Mine, and for slightly older readers. Le grand désordre (2005), Annie du lac (2009), the most recent book L’homme et Dieu (2010) and L’enfant racine can almost be described as modern fairytales. As such, they are also books for all ages, where Kitty Crowther uses motifs and figures from folklore and fairytale in a way that is entirely her own. The stories revolve around themes such as loneliness and togetherness. Kitty Crowther often tackles existential questions and weighty subjects, such as death in La Visite de Petite Morte (2004) and Annie du lac, but it is never pitch black, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. In her stories, difficulties are a springboard for new opportunities, and unexpected meetings a catalyst towards a more positive way of life. This creates complex stories that are particularly suited to discussion.

About the book

In L’enfant racine we meet Leslie. She lives beyond a forest that does not exist on any maps, nobody knows where it begins or ends – the indeterminate place of fairytale that signals that what happens could happen anywhere and that we find ourselves on some kind of boundary, possibly with other worlds, possibly inside Leslie’s head, or inside our own. Kitty Crowther explores the shifting boundaries between realism, fairytale and dreams.

When chasing a fox, Leslie hears a strange noise. She creeps through a tunnel to find out what or who is crying. On the other side she finds an orphan child who looks like a root. Leslie takes the root child home with her and a not entirely uncomplicated relationship begins. It is not easy to get used to a new person – the relationship could be interpreted as a child-adult relationship, adoption by a single parent, any kind of relationship between two people, in fact.

But someone is watching over them – look at the picture where the root child and Leslie are sulking in their separate corners of the sofa and you can see a small elf-like figure peering in through the window. The reader has worked out something that Leslie does not know; that the fox probably lured her there deliberately and that the world that the root child comes from is ruled by Queen Mab. Queen Mab is a figure from Celtic folklore found in the works of poets like Shelley, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and often in fantasy literature. Look closely and you also discover that the elves are following Leslie from the moment she enters the land on the other side of the tunnel. A story like L’enfant racine is also told through the pictures.

L’enfant racine is a story with many meanings, where everyone can come up with their own interpretation of what the root child actually is or symbolises – a lust for life? Motherhood? The fact that togetherness is the most important thing, even though relationships can make life complicated? When the root child eventually has to leave Leslie, she decides to abandon her lone existence and go in search of other people. See how resolutely she tramps the road with her luggage in the last picture – and how the fox and the elves are watching her. Perhaps that was what they wanted to achieve?

Might Efland be the kingdom of dreams, with the tunnel symbolising a channel into Leslie’s subconscious? Was it something she had to discover deep inside herself? Meeting her own child? Note how we the readers cannot see Leslie’s face until she has met the root child, as if she did not really exist until then, is not a complete human being.

Kitty Crowther often talks about the friction between creative, self-imposed solitude and the family, friends and life outside the life of the artist. Perhaps the final lines of L’enfant racine offer a possible pointer in that direction: “Once every year the root child and Leslie met in a moonbeam,” despite the fact that Leslie now has a husband and children of her own – might the root child symbolise her own creativity? That it is essential to accept and protect it?

There are many interpretations to be made here. The above offers some ideas and suggestions, but don’t try to find fixed answers to the questions. Instead let everyone draw their own conclusions according to age, experience and associations. Together you will discover more potential meanings, gaining a richer reading experience.

More to discover, and to discuss, after reading

What kind of character is the root child really? Does he symbolise some aspect of Leslie’s personality?

What can the scene where all the root child’s relations come to fetch him and they swarm all over Leslie’s home stand for? Why must the root child go back?

Before Leslie leaves the house, she hangs up her gun above the fireplace, what could that mean? What has happened to Leslie in meeting the root child? And why do they meet again every year?

See how Kitty Crowther works with her pencils to create depth and light, structure and perspective. How a grey-black bedcover looks soft, while the tree trunks are compact. How the room gains scenic depth through different shades of grey and the red-brown stroke in the corner. How by leaving lighter areas around, e.g. a flower, she makes it stand out from the picture. Try with your own drawings!

Follow their eyes! Kitty Crowther creates strong presence in her pictures by having her characters be so absorbed by each other. Like watching a film or a play with two actors intensely present. Even when the root child and Leslie are not looking at each other, as in the scene on the sofa, their glances show exactly how they are feeling.

Further reading about Kitty Crowther

Belgiska ritar historier, Gunilla Wedding, Skånska Dagbladet, 23 October 2008 (in Swedish) http://www.skanskan.se/article/20081023/NOJE/424895492/1057

Hon vänder svaghet till styrka, Agneta Edwards, Opsis Kalopsis, issue 2 2010 (in Swedish)

Kitty Crowther – en känslig berättare, Lennart Eng, IBBY-bladet, issue 2 2010 (in Swedish)

This Reading Guide was written by Agneta Edwards, former member of the jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It was first published in Swedish in August 2011. 

Further reading about Kitty Crowther