Nik-nak has just published my new Superheroes book – in Dutch plus Amharic, Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Tigrinya and Turkish. It’s a story about five kids aged about 11 from different countries, who find themselves with their families in Belgium. Although they’re sometimes teased about not speaking Dutch perfectly, they soon realise that knowing a second (or even a third!) language is in fact, pretty cool!
In a series of three adventures, the kids exercise a maternal language in the service of someone else. They end up by volunteering at a community center to help other kids adjust to their new country.
Although this book is unlike my Betty & Cat books – Superheroes is a traditional book with text in both languages – I strongly believe in the importance of making bilingualism the norm – a thing not to be laughed at, a thing to aspire to! I want to show kids that the world is bigger than one country, one language, and that it can be cool to be different.
The five kids come from different backgrounds – immigrant, expat, refugee – yet they get along because they “get” what it’s like to be bilingual, to be a stranger in a new country.
The book is available through nik-nak.eu Eva Tack did the fun illustrations.
Thanks to a terrific Internet contact in Tehran, Betty & Cat were “discovered” by nik-nak, a Belgian publisher specialising in Dutch/Flemish books + another language, often an immigrant or refugee language. Currently, the nik-nak range spans Albanian to Urdu and lots of languages in between! I’m happy to say that nik-nak now offers all nine versions of Betty & Cat in their collection.
Nik-nak was launched in Antwerp in 2010. According to publisher and founder Chris Sterkens, “Books make kids curious, they stimulate their imagination. And reading aloud to kids benefits both the reader and the listener. But lots of expat parents don’t feel confident about reading Dutch-language books aloud. When I launched nik-nak, there were no books to help expats over this hurdle. With nik-nak, we provide expat parents and their kids the chance to bridge the gap between their mother tongue and Dutch.”
Nik-nak books are inclusive, respectful of other cultures, and above all, fun.
Recent research on bilingualism has shown that expat kids benefit from cultivating their mother tongue, while learning the target language. To that end, nik-nak books are used in a number of classrooms in Belgium and The Netherlands. The books can also be found in libraries across both countries. Nik-nak books are inclusive, respectful of other cultures, and above all, fun.
From Betty & Cat readers, I know that not only the kids benefit from the dual-language concept: the reader, an adult with perhaps a very basic knowledge of the target language, is also helped. One English woman in Holland said to me that she was so excited to share Betty & Cat with her Dad in England: He loved reading to his grandkids but felt excluded because he didn’t know Dutch. Together, grandparent and grandchild helped each other through the language maze. I spoke to a class at the Universite de Montreal, and heard several of the students say they wished they’d had Betty & Cat-style books growing up: at the time, there was nothing to reflect the way their bilingual families were living, code-switching from one moment to another.
Chris has recently taken on a new book I’ve written called Superhelden (Superheroes). The book follows five kids living in Belgium who each come from another country. They hang out together, and discover that their mother tongue gives them a superpower. In three separate adventures, they help people solve a problem using their mother tongue. The book will be issued in Dutch, with English, French, Arabic and Turkish as the second language.
For more information about nik-nak, visit their website www.nik-nak.eu. Superhelden will launch in January 2023.
My name is Camille. I’m a primary school teacher in France. I started teaching in 2016 in a school with non-English speaking children, ages 8 to 11. Since 2019 I started teaching the CLIL curriculum (Content Learning Integrated Language) with children ages 8 and 9.
What I usually do, whatever the child’s age, is start the afternoon with a reading. This is just for fun and pleasure. I, or the children, pick up an English-language book and we’ll read it every day for a week. It sounds like a lot, but children love repetition, the expectation of hearing something they know, and anticipating something that will create emotions they like. Repetition is key in teaching!
Our very first experience with a Betty and Cat book was with children who had probably never heard a word of English before.
I began simply by introducing Betty, the dog who thinks in French, and Cat, the critter who thinks in English. This is the interesting feature of the book. The languages themselves become characters in the story. Betty is not French because she is “from France” but because of the language she uses. Same for Cat. He is not “from England”. Cat is the language he uses. More than just animals, Betty and Cat are languages. The children picked that up much more quickly than it takes to explain it!
With non-English speaking children, I show the pictures while I am reading. In this way they can use all the clues in the book to help them understand the story. They really enjoy the pictures, especially little details like spotting a mouse on the pages.
The story makes sense to children very quickly as they use the language they know to build up their understanding of the other one. Obviously, the children don’t understand every word, however, they make links and connections very quickly. They understand what’s happening. They also implement specific strategies very quickly: obvious words, expected actions. In my experience, the balance of English and French is just fine. The books are not too long, so the children don’t give up. They know that what is coming next will help them understand what happened before.
One last, very important feature is that Betty and Cat is a real story: you don’t read the same simple phrases in English then in French. The children are not bored by it and they are involved in the story’s energy and events. So far their favourite, whatever the age and the language, is Betty and Cat In the Snow.
My second experience with Betty and Cat is with children already playing with both languages. What makes immediate sense to them is that what is going on in the book with both languages is exactly what is going on in their brain. It is how they live and learn. The book builds on their vocabulary and grammatical structures and makes them feel more confident in the target language. They also like reading and role-playing with Betty and Cat. Every time I start reading one of the books, they ask for the other ones!
In conclusion, I highly recommend the Betty & Cat books for classroom learning.
It’s been ten years since I started this bilingual adventure. It started with a French friend of mine – a children’s book illustrator – whose grandkids were being brought up in Brussels by their French mother and Irish dad. Marie felt that her high-school English couldn’t keep up with her grandkids’ knowledge of English, and she was afraid of being left out. So: could we do a bilingual book together? Sure. But not for a nano-second did I think of doing it the traditional way (completely translated with left-side French and right-side English). After all, at age 6, we moved to Montreal from Holland and I was thrown into a new school, new language, with no ill effects. In Montreal, code switching is an art!
Our dog Betty was French, so she spoke French – a no-brainer. We inherited a cat from our neighbour, so it was logical that Cat would speak English. When I pitched the book to a potential French agent ages ago, she wanted me to switch languages. For her, cats were the smarter critter, so it was “logical” that he should speak French; we didn’t get into the fact that most people think cats are female and dogs are male! According to one educator, this was another plus – gender diversity!
Over the years, I’ve been blessed with tremendous feedback
Feedback often comes from grandparents who are in the same boat as Marie, and get the concept. At a Christmas fair, one young woman bought a bunch saying her father would be thrilled: he could finally read to his grandson in both languages.
One of my favourite comments came from a nine-year-old French boy. I’d given the kids in his class each a Betty & Cat book – their teacher is a friend of mine who has turned what was an exclusively French school into a bilingual one (more on that later!). Each of the kids wrote me a thank-you note. This one stood out:
For this dear child (whose name really is “Wisdom”) authors tend to be dead!
One world, so many languages!
One year, my sister-in-law in Atlanta bought a book for every kid in her grandson’s class. Half the kids were Latino, and so with their Spanish/English books, they could all be on the same page.
When stories about the “kids in cages” in America were everywhere, I got an order for a Spanish/English book from a woman in McAllen, Texas. The name of course was infamous. I wrote and asked what she wanted the book for. Turns out she was a volunteer at the camp. They discovered that one of the few things that calmed the kids, was being read to aloud. I shipped a bunch of books her way.
My husband’s colleague has a daughter who works with kids in the eastern jungle region of Guatemala. The students are indigenous Mayans, so Spanish is actually their second language – their native tongue is Q’ecchi, one of many Mayan dialects. The kids become fluent in Spanish very quickly and most yearn to learn English as well. We ended up shipping a bunch of books their way.
I’d love to find an agent to help take Betty & Cat further. The potential language combinations are endless, but the necessary energy and investments to do these on my own aren’t. For example, I get plenty of requests for a German/Italian or German/English version. Recently, I got a book order from a young educator working with kids on the German/Polish border. Her wish? “Maybe we’ll be able to encourage people there to develop complementary bilingual material for adolescents who [want] to stay in the region but want to open their space of communication to gain a 360 Radius instead of just one side of the river.”
The last few years, Betty & Cat has come to the attention of several academics – full-blown professors like Joël Thibault at the University of Ottawa, and Elodie Combes when she was at the Université de Montréal. Lately, a number of young people studying language have stumbled on Betty & Cat and included the books in their studies.
Academics refer to Betty & Cat as an integrated bilingual book, as opposed to the traditional ones that are translated. My own feeling, based on my own character and experience (no patience to read the same thing twice!) is that integrated is the way to go. For kids who are studying another language, integrated is more fluid. The story doesn’t suffer from repetition. It’s also more rewarding – when you’ve finished the book, you’ve read a story in the target language, with only context and illustrations to point the way.
Here’s a blog by Joël Thibault on his latest study:
A little while ago, I offered the French/English series to an acquaintance in Tokyo for his young son, Kai, aged 6 (while apologising that I still haven’t been able to find a publisher to do a Japanese/English version – arrgh!).
The book went home and into Kai’s hands – he speaks neither English nor French, but he connected right away with the illustrations: in his thank you note (bless him!) he managed to draw Betty with a droopy ear – something his dad hadn’t picked up on. Kids are awesome (I’m old enough to remember the original meaning of this over-rated word and this is the perfect spot to use it!).
I regularly come up against parents who find the fact that the books aren’t translated too intimidating for their kids, or the language “too complicated”. Rubbish. The children’s author Sandra Boynton, whose board books for small children have sold 75 million copies (I can only dream of such numbers), had to fight to have the word “intone” remain in one of her books. Her response: “We’re reading this to a zero-old. All language is new to a kid. Why not invite them into a vocabulary that’s special from the beginning?” Yay Sandra Boynton. (From an article in the November issue of The Atlantic)
I’m proud of my Betty & Cat books and I’m even more proud of the little readers and their parents who “get” them .
This past Saturday I had a stand at the salon de Livres Jeunesse at a village near us. An amazing number of people turned up, people bought armsful of books, and the whole atmosphere was one of amazing interest.
The people who saw my bilingual books (there were only two of us flogging bilingual books!) more often than not approached with a certain diffidence. Teachers and librarians were more open, as were the kids themselves. I had two girls – 11 year-olds – read me a sample page, each taking a part. The one reading the English part was amazed at how well she understood the text, even though she didn’t know every word on the page (probably not even half!). What a kick for me – and for her. Nice to know you’re on the right track. The interview below is interesting. A researcher explains how kids are perfectly capable of learning two languages at once, from day one. Have a listen.