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.”