I Have the Right to Be a Child
written by Alain Serres, illustrated by Aurélia Fronty, translated by Sarah Ardizzone
(Phoenix Yard Books (UK), 2012/2014)
This book asks big questions of its young readers – literally. Each double-page spread contains a direct question for children to ponder about themselves, regarding their rights as a child: questions such as, ‘If girls and boys are different, can our rights be exactly the same?’; ‘Can playing be a right too?’ or ‘Can I feel confident that my parents, my friends, my country will help me if my body works in a different way to other people’s?’. Altogether, there are some 24 direct questions, all pertaining to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was first adopted in 1989; I Have the Right to Be a Child was first published in France to mark the 20th anniversary. The short answer to all the questions asked is (or should be) a resounding, ‘Yes!’; and for the two questions which ask, ‘Why?’ (‘Why should I suffer any kind of violence?’ and ‘Why does any child have to experience weapons or war?’), the shortest answer is again an affirming ‘I shouldn’t’. The final spread does, in fact, provide that unequivocal response.
The additional text, while kept to a minimum, offers a child’s personal musing on each Act highlighted and provides a springboard for discussion, whether as a class group, for example, or as an individual reader. As well as reflecting on their own lives, the book helps readers to think about children elsewhere and is a great tool for encouraging empathy and engagement with current national and international news stories involving children. This is made particularly possible by the question format of the text – and this facet of the book is down to Sarah Ardizzone’s translation into English (and I’m glad to see her name on the book’s cover). The original French is not interrogative – and indeed Helen Mixter‘s English translation for the Canadian publication by Groundwood (2012) retains the format of the original. Both translations are powerful, but I like the brave step that Sarah Ardizzone has taken with Phoenix Yard Books to open the issues up to deep discussion through turning the text into questions.
The illustrations also give space to the imagination. They offer an interpretation of the text that symbolises its essence. Aurélia Fronty’s style is the perfect foil to the direct text, with its quality of poetic etherealism grounded by the unflinchingly direct gaze of the children, all set in richly coloured, jewel-like backgrounds. The children she depicts come from lots of different ethnic backgrounds and they are unified in the interchangeability of their collective childhood. The illustrations emphasise the positive affirmation of the children’s rights, but like the text they provide an opening for thinking about children who are suffering because their rights are not being observed. In the illustration for the question about violence, cited above, a wolf with sharp, pointed teeth fills the left-hand page. Its shadow falls across the right-hand page so that its open mouth holds a boy standing looking at the wolf with an expression that could be fear or could be defiance. It’s a powerful image, redolent of the many children everywhere who live under the shadow of violence.
I Have the Right to Be a Child would work well as a resource in schools along with We Are All Born Free (Frances Lincoln), which focuses on the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (indeed, both books are endorsed by Amnesty International); and certainly, this is one of those books that should be within easy reach on every child’s book shelf, whether at home or at school.
The book makes slightly uncomfortable reading for us adults because we are the ones with the responsibility to ensure that children’s rights are observed, and we know that there is still a very long way to go. But by getting books like this into the hands of the children of today, we go some way towards empowering them both as children now and as the adults of tomorrow, responsible in their turn for upholding the rights of the world’s children.
Download a summary of the Convention.
Watch Groundwood / House of Anansi’s trailer for the Canadian edition. If you have the UK edition, it is interesting to compare the two!
Read Publishing Perspective’s recent feature article about translator Sarah Ardizzone and her work here.