Today we fly over to Paris with Lawrence Schimel to meet Keren Eisenzweig, publisher at Chattycat, a specialist publishing house that produces bilingual French-English children’s books, where English is integrated into the stories …
By Lawrence Schimel
World Kid Lit: Here at World Kid Lit, we love pics of translators and their pets, or pets posing with their translations. We’ve even started a new hashtag #petsandtranslation. So I can’t help asking about Puff, or Chattykitty, who is the star of one of your first titles, and also gives rise to your name. Can you introduce us to your feline (and you, too)?
Keren Eisenzweig: Puff (or as she’s known to her Facebook and Instagram followers, ‘Chattykitty’) is well on her way to becoming a social media star. She, and her very chatty personality, actually inspired both our logo and our name. Chattycat is a play on words, as in French, the translation of ‘cat’ is ‘chat’. It seemed like a perfect fit for our bilingual publishing house.
As for us: Keren’s background as a language teacher in France is what inspired her to found Chattycat. As a native French and English speaker, she has relied all her life on books to keep up a good level in both languages. So naturally, she turned to them as a way to help her French students learn English. But she soon discovered the lack of suitable books: existing bilingual stories meant for French children contained far too much English and were not adapted to their level, while those written entirely in English were also out of her students’ reach. This motivated her to publish books that were adapted to the ages, English levels, and interests of French children.
Romaric is an ex-TV journalist whose experience allows him to develop the multimedia aspect of Chattycat, namely, the audio that accompanies each book and that is essential as it enables children to hear the correct pronunciation of each English passage.
Together, Keren, Romaric and Puff form the bilingual team behind Chattycat.
WKL: One of the reasons I reached out to interview you is that I love books that are integrally bilingual, as opposed to just a parallel text. What are some of the obstacles or challenges (or the joys and pleasures) of creating bilingual works?
KE: Integrally bilingual books are so important to us: they allow children to really immerse themselves in the story, and the foreign language becomes a natural part of the reading experience. It makes sense, for example when you travel to a different country, or meet a foreigner, to hear a different language. So, we publish French stories with English words and passages that make sense because of the plot. It never feels tacked on, and we thus avoid an overly-educational feel that could prevent children from reading for pleasure. Our concept is to encourage children to enjoy stories, while also, incidentally, picking up some new vocabulary.
This is very rewarding work, but it also, of course, comes with challenges: for example, finding authors who understand, and are able to integrate, our bilingual concept in their stories. Visually, it’s very important that our books look like general children’s literature, once again, to encourage children to read and enjoy them just as they would any story—our books should not be seen as homework!
There are glossaries in many of our books, which are a bit different depending on the age group. We steer clear of anything that feels like a direct translation, unless it’s seamlessly incorporated into the story.
WKL: Chattycat publishes for many different age levels, from early language acquisition books (the I Spy series and some of the early reader comics) to young adult novels for teen readers. What are some of the differences in creating bilingual books for these different ages?
KE: We have different concepts for different age groups. We have early readers divided into three subgroups, each one corresponding to a reading level. The earliest reading level contains mostly color-coded speech bubbles: the blue ones are meant to be read by the children, while the yellow ones are in English, and thanks to our audio, children can repeat them. There is also short narration meant to be read by an adult. Of course, as children get more advanced, they can also read the narration.
Our most advanced reading level is the series of mini-chapter books of 48 pages, with a color-coded system: for example, there will be an orange word in English and an orange word in French, and the reader therefore understands that they mean the same thing. It’s a very seamless way to understand a foreign language, and allows us to avoid glossaries, which we feel are not adapted to children who are just learning to read.
Our level two books, the first of which will be published in March, are a combination of these two concepts. Short, easy-to-read texts are interspersed with illustrations where the characters express themselves in speech bubbles. It allows for frequent pauses in reading, while also giving children a more visual way to interpret the English words they are discovering.
We feel that it makes a lot of sense to associate the discovery of reading and of English, as in France, children begin to do both in first grade.
Our comic books feature short, fun stories, each of which is followed by a game or activity, which also allow children to understand what they’ve just read. Dialogue between French-speaking and English-speaking characters, as well as French narration, is also an important tool to help children understand the English words.
Our chapter books often feature characters going to different countries and solving mysteries there while trying to understand what the locals are saying. There are glossaries at the end of each chapter that give the translations for key words, but it’s mostly the context that enables comprehension. For all of these books, we assume that children are just starting language classes, so the stories are planned in a way that everything is perfectly understandable.
We also publish historical fantasy middle-grade novels, and for these, the English passages get a little longer. While they remain understandable thanks to the context, we also assume that children have some prior knowledge of the language. But even if they don’t, all important information is repeated in French, so children can easily understand and enjoy the stories. There are also longer glossaries at the end of these novels to help.
WKL: One of Chattycat’s big successes is the Cléo Lefort series. Can you talk about any differences between publishing a series and publishing individual titles. Does Cléo just learn new vocabulary/history in the different volumes? Or does the level of English also increase as the series advances and readers have more fluency?
KE: We love series at Chattycat, as they are a great way to get readers invested in different characters!
We were inspired by classic mystery novels such as Nancy Drew to create the concept behind Cléo Lefort. In each book, Cléo travels to a different city, learning the language while solving a mystery. There are recurring characters and new ones in each book, and lots of cliffhangers to make the reading experience addictive. In fact, readers often tell us that they finish our books in just one sitting.
Just like Nancy Drew and other classic mystery series, there is no need to read one Cléo Lefort book before reading another. This is the case for all our series apart from our historical fantasy trilogies for older children. Each book has about the same amount of English, and can be read interchangeably. The idea is to have constant immersion in English, which allows children to progress little by little, at their own rhythm. Then, when they feel ready, they can discover more advanced novels. This is why it’s so important for us to publish books for each age group and level.
WKL: To conclude, can you let us know what projects Chattycat has published recently and what we can look forward to in the future?
KE: There are a number of projects that we are very excited about. We launched our early reader format in May, and the reaction has been incredible. One particular early reader series that we love is Cat Island: two girls (one French, the other English) discover Cat Island, a magical place where our pet cats travel to at night.
But apart from the fun (and cat-focused!) adventures, serious issues are discussed in an accessible way. For example, in the two books that launched the series, subjects such as solitude, the moving away of a best friend, and school bullying were touched upon. In the next two books, coming out in February, inequality, poverty, and feminism are discussed. It’s a great way to empower children, to talk directly to them about things that they may be going through, as well as to interest them in subjects that affect other children.
As for upcoming projects, we are excited to launch two new series in February and March. In February, we will publish two interactive books in which children can solve their own mysteries through various games and challenges (and of course, learning English is an added challenge!) The title of this series is Mène l’enquête, or Solve the Case, and the first two books feature a haunted manor and dinosaurs.
In March, we are publishing the first books of a series that I mentioned previously, a level 2 early reader series titled Space Kids. It follows a team of children astronauts, and it’s absolutely hilarious. It also gives interesting information about outer space, with each book featuring a different planet.
In 2022, we are publishing new additions to our most popular series, as well as launching several new ones—our program is very exciting, and we can’t wait to share what’s in store!
More about ChattyCat
Keren Eisenzweig is an American in Paris who has always loved reading. Since becoming an English teacher in French schools, she wanted to teach children a second language as she learned it herself, through reading, but she couldn’t find anything suitable. So she decided to embark on an adventure and set up Chattycat Books together with her partner Romaric and their cat Puff.