A few weeks ago, France found itself in the midst of a rare controversy over a children’s picture book after a prominent politician said on television that it made his blood run cold. The work in question? Tous à poil, a celebration of diverse (naked or partially clothed) human forms that’s intended to teach kids to accept their own body shapes and refrain from judging others’.
Jean-François Copé, current leader of the center-right party UMP and former government minister and spokesperson under Presidents Chirac and Sarkozy, brandished the book on February 9 during an appearance on the LCI TV network. Claiming that it was recommended for classroom use by the current Socialist government, he fretted that children who see teachers and police officers naked in a book might learn to disrespect authority figures. (In fact Tous à poil is included in a rather obscure bibliography, compiled by a regional nonprofit, of children’s books that fight gender stereotypes. The entire bibliography is linked from a Ministry of Education website–but it’s been there since fellow UMP member Sarkozy was in power.)
Copé’s comments, which seem cynically calculated to appeal to far-right voters, quickly gave rise to a mix of ridicule and consternation, not to mention booming sales for the book. Three days after his TV appearance, Tous à poil was the top seller out of all categories on Amazon France; over two weeks later it’s still the #2 picture book. Co-author and illustrator Marc Daniau said the book’s purpose was simply to demystify nudity and counter the Photoshopped images of bodies that children see in the media. “If we follow the thought process of the UMP boss, then we shouldn’t take children to museums either,” Daniau observed. “No one is shocked by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!”
Indeed, Copé’s reaction to Tous à poil seems downright…American. He would apparently feel right at home with those who wanted to ban Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen for a single-page glimpse of innocent nudity, or the Pennsylvania resident who claimed that a picture book about a cowboy taking a bath–in which the genitals were cleverly concealed in every picture–was “absolute obscenity.” But strangely enough, as the Telegraph points out, French conservatives actually consider gender theory “to be an American progressive plot” that is responsible for books like Tous à poil making their way into schools in the first place. Happily it seems few of Copé’s fellow citizens bought into this argument, and his attack on the book failed to win him the political points he was hoping for.
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.