When you’re not sure what a word means, should you give up?

Kids are amazing! The way they play with language, you can almost feel their excitement, their sense of discovery. I have a French friend who moved to Australia with her four-year-old son. On a visit back to France, they were in our kitchen and Nino, who knew the house well, said, in English, that he was thirsty. (That somehow he knew to speak to us in English I already found amazing, but that’s not the story!).

I said that he knew where the glasses were and to go ahead and get one. He went to the cupboard, reached up, and said, “I can’t actually reach it.” That word “actually” was like a ray of sunshine on a dreary afternoon. How amazing! The word was superfluous to requirements. It added nothing, except perhaps a level of sophistication, indicating a love of language, of communications, of expression (I expect great things from this child!)

When I show my books to adults, and say that the books are NOT translated, they nod, then flip through the book. Nine times out of ten, they exclaim, “But they’re not translated! – (ie. Oh, the horror!). These adults are demonstrating their own insecurities, and not those of the target audience!

screen-shot-2016-09-04-at-20-53-22The first time I had this reaction, I crumbled, assuming I’d goofed with my lovely new book. However, I went back to CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I found in the library when I was nine. It was and always has been, a favourite book. But look at the language! I’m quite sure I had no idea what even a wardrobe was at that point, but dove in anyway. And there must have been tons of words I didn’t know (not to mention all the allegorical stuff!). The point is, I coped, I loved, I learned, I grew.

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Happy Valentine’s Day to the Betty & Cat Crew

Five years after starting the Betty & Cat books, the crew has grown.  My husband  and chief valentine, Jeff Mann, continues to be the backbone of the operation, since without his encouragement, I would have thrown in the towel a dozen times.

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Christine Duvernois and I didn’t know each other before we started on the books. Her illustrations are the first thing people notice – and love – about the books. Christine also spellchecks the French text.

Kirsten Veldhoen’s fierce defense of proper Dutch and Jannette Blom’s tempered stance on the subject ensure that the Dutch books don’t embarrass me.

Elodie Combes, former professor of plurilingualism at the University of Montreal, has introduced me through social media to scores of language enthusiasts – people who “get” the concept.

And of course, Rocío Ramos de Muller.  Rocío has been a real shot in the arm. A teacher herself, she approached me to do a Spanish version, and since I don’t speak Spanish, I declined – only to have her insist, and then do the interpretation herself. Rocío is also developing into an amazing salesperson –  the books were hardly off the press before they were on the shelves of the Toulouse Natural History Museum.

My friend and linguist Javier Dominguez, also a teacher, assured me that Rocío had done a great job!

Then there are the critters themselves. Betty was chien de tete for a musher before we adopted her. Cat just showed up in the barn seven years ago and has stayed (along with his brother Scaredy Cat, who remains feral). They’ve been joined by Bill, a rescue beagle who’s like a toddler with ADHD.

And of course all our readers!

I feel blessed. Happy Valentine’s day, dear Betty & Cat crew!

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Betty & Cat books as confidence-builders

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My Betty & Cat bilingual children’s books came about when a French illustrator friend with grandchildren growing up French/English in Brussels approached me to do a bilingual kids’ book. Her English wasn’t very good and she was feeling left out of the kids’ bilingual experience. We needed something to build up her confidence, something she could share with her grandkids.

I’ve written all my life, but I hesitated. Then one morning, drinking coffee in bed, with Betty and Cat on the bed with us, the idea for the books suddenly came to me. However, it never entered my mind to do a translation. Betty was French, we were in France, and so it was natural for her to speak French to the reader. Cat was born in the neighbour’s barn and showed up one day – and stayed. It made sense for him to speak English – he was the foreigner.

The confidence-building idea became crucial. Not just with grandparents, whose knowledge of the second language might date from high school, or foreign holidays, but also for parents in a bi-cultural family – both parents don’t always have the same comfort level with both languages.

And then there are the kids themselves. Although most of the research being done today shows that kids being brought up bilingually have numerous advantages over kids being brought up with only one language, not all kids are the same.

It turns out that there are several speech therapists in Holland who have ordered my Dutch/English books for their practices to help kids build confidence with the target language. And it seems to work. Kids discover that bilingualism is normal (the power of the printed page?), and that it can be fun.

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Betty & Cat books are ahead of the pack – again!

When I wrote the first Betty & Cat bilingual children’s book five years ago in Dutch/English, there was only one other book like it out there, and that was for babies. There were lots of bilingual books, yes, but they all featured a translation, with the story told in both languages side by side. Betty & Cat is really bilingual, since each critter speaks his or her own language. Today, there are four book series like mine that I know of – three of which, like mine, are self-published.
es-en-casaJust before Christmas, I sent my first two books to Cuba – a Spanish/English version of Home and a Spanish/French version. In the last five years, I’ve sent books right around the world. Early adopters have been very encouraging and have spread the word. But this was the first time I’d sent books to Cuba.

My sister-in-law in Atlanta bought a Spanish/English book for everyone in her grandson’s first-grade class. Half are latino, half are anglophone, and this way, everyone’s on the same page (pardon the pun!)

The more I meet young readers of my books, the more I’m convinced that this is the way to go. No one has the patience to read the same thing twice; kids are so smart: they don’t need you to tell them what you just told them – they can figure it out, even if they don’t know the meaning of every word.

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Betty’s a French dog and Cat’s an English. . .cat!

My Betty & Cat books reflect life with our two critters: Betty’s a retired sled dog whom we adopted. Cat’s a feral cat, born in the barn behind the house, who has since become tame. There was never any question in my mind about genders: it is what it is, you could say! However. . .

Because the first book was originally done in French/English I first went up to Paris to meet with a potential agent (at the time I still hoped to find a publisher). When she read the text, she said (in French; she didn’t speak English): “I see that the dog speaks French and the cat speaks English. But Cats are more intelligent, so could we have the cat speak French?” The immediate answer was “no”, and the subsequent answer was, “I’ll self-publish”.

On the other hand, an early adaptor in Quebec, who is French, and a teacher of plurilingualism, immediately liked the anti-sexist nature of the books: for her, having a female dog and a male cat was anti-stereotypical, and thus newsworthy. She’s been an amazing influencer for the books (you can see her read two of them with my nephew on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tuovC3ViUQ

In the same way I stayed faithful to who the critters are, it also never occurred to me to translate the books. Betty is a French dog, so she speaks French (or Dutch or Spanish, depending on the book; she’s the native-speaker); Cat came in from who-knows-where, so it makes sense that he speaks English. Play the ball where it lays. Things change. Realities differ. Shaking things up is a good thing. (Stereotypes may be on the way out, but where would we be without clichés!)

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“My dad would love this!”

screen-shot-2016-09-04-at-20-58-19Craft fairs are fun to do because you risk meeting your market. A few years ago in Amsterdam, I was flogging my Betty & Cat books with moderate success at a Christmas fair, when a young English woman stopped at the stand and got all excited. Her father, her children’s grandfather, was having trouble bonding with his grandkids. They spoke Dutch among themselves, and of course, he didn’t.

This woman bought all three books as a Christmas present saying, “My dad’s going to love this!”

You can see how this would play out: Granddad on the couch with a grandchild and a Betty & Cat book. He doesn’t understand the word thuis and has it explained to him; the child doesn’t understand the word hedge and has it explained to her by her grandfather.

The primary objective when I wrote these books was to raise the confidence levels of all concerned. I wanted children reading the books to feel a sense of accomplishment – as well as finding their bilingual experience reflected in a “real” book. I wanted parents reading the books to their kids to feel confident about a target language they maybe weren’t that sure of. And I wanted to give grandparents the experience of participating in the bilingual life of a grandchild.

When I was a Dutch kid growing up in Montreal, language was a game for us. When I was 7 or 8, I remember we made a tape to send “back home”. My dad made me recite Humpty Dumpty into the tape recorder (God knows what they made of this in Holland, but I was game). The sense of pride and accomplishment was enormous. And a love of language – any language – turned into a lifelong adventure. Win-win.

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Lingotastic Really Gets the Concept!

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-09-46-39Sarah Barrett, who runs a multi-lingual school in the UK, was delighted when I approached her about reviewing my Betty & Cat books. As she says in the review below, “Regular readers of our blog will know we love books so when Hennie asked us to review this book I was excited to find out more. Language learning with bilingual animals? Whatever next!”

I’m thrilled to say, Sarah *got* the concept right away (she said it was *brilliant* – blush-blush!)

Sarah’s aim is to teach children second – or even third! – languages in a fun, non-threatening way. A way that fits in perfectly with the Betty & Cat concept. Here’s her review:

 Il neige chez Betty and Cat In the snow

For more information on Sarah’s work, go to http://www.lingotastic.co.uk

Thanks, Sarah!

 

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Events That Keep Me Going Forward

carteannivhennieIt’s a bit lonely, self-publishing. So when something amazing or fun or interesting happens, it’s the fuel that keeps me going. Here are some highlights:

Christine made me this birthday card – love her style, don’t you?

An – anonymous – version of this card is available for you to send when you buy two or more Betty & Cat books. Check the order page on this website for details.

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Indigo in Montreal is a loyal fan:

See Il neige chez Betty & Cat In the snow top right at Indigo in Montreal. Although they say ages 3 to 5, I know the book is also read by a slew of 5 to 9 year olds – kids who are growing up in two languages (or more!) and who are pleased to see a book that reflects how they talk.

 

 

Jeff hustling for Betty & Cat at a Christmas Fair in Amsterdam

The highlight was meeting a young Englishwoman who bought a book for her dad so that he could share his grandchild’s Dutch/English experience – she was thrilled, and so was I!  (The picture’s so fuzzy because it was SO cold that day!)

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An Opinion from a Professional Educator

Here’s another point of view.

Elodie Combes, born in Corsica, feminist (she likes Betty & Cat because they don’t conform to stereotypes), and until recently professor of French at the University of Montreal, has this to say about the method used in Betty & Cat (beware: it’s in French – a good way for you to practice your French!):

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