If your child is bilingual or trilingual it’s easy to find books to buy in the relevant languages, but if you need to cut the cost and/or ring the changes it’s harder to find a good range of books to borrow in your local library.
My daughter’s growing up with French and German as well as her native English, and we started French and German songs and rhymes when she was 10 months old. Fortunately we were in easy reach of central London, so when she was a toddler we joined the Institut Français Children’s Library at 32 Harrington Road SW7. It’s only about 5 minutes’ walk from South Kensington tube station. We used to combine a visit there with a visit to one of the nearby museums, or Kensington Gardens with its exciting “Diana Playground”. The French librarian used to recommend books, CDs and DVDs; we’d chat with her, and browse the shelves and boxes full of books. We always visited the library last, just before going home, because of the weight of the things we’d borrowed on our yearly ticket.
When my daughter got past the “picture book” stage we didn’t go there so often and our membership lapsed. Then I read about the refurbishment of the library and its renaming as “Bibliothèque Quentin Blake”. The artist Quentin Blake, famous for his illustrations in Roald Dahl books, had taken part in several events at the Institut Français main building round the corner in Queensberry Place. We’d watched him on stage at the yearly South Ken Kids’ Festival one November. He was drawing “live” for an audience of children shooting their hands up with their requests. Afterwards he signed our Roald Dahl book, “L’Enorme Crocodile”. So when we investigated the new library we were curious about why it was named after him.
As we went into the library we saw the reason for the name on the wall to our left. Quentin Blake has painted them a huge mural depicting children perched on the branches of a tree immersed in their reading. He’s also painted this lovely picture of a bookworm bird for them to use in their publicity.
The library has been extended to cover 2 floors and we were surprised at how much bigger and brighter it looked. The books, audiobooks, comics and DVDs cater for all ages up to 12. We both found plenty to look at and read as we relaxed on the soft cushions. For an annual membership fee of £30 you can borrow any of the items, several at a time.
The “Kids’ Programme” has improved and now offers “taster” sessions for musical instruments, and baby and toddler activity sessions in easy French. They charge a small fee, usually £7, or £5 for members of the library. My daughter did a writing workshop in the downstairs part of the library. The children in the group, aged between 8 and 12, were encouraged to take their stories in unexpected directions by changing letters in words, as she explains here:
“The new idea for me was changing one French word in our story (eg. “chapeau”) into a different word that sounds nearly the same (like “château”). It changed the story into something magical, so instead of writing “Elle porte un chapeau jaune”, you’d change it to “Elle porte un château jaune”. Most of the session was in French and there were 7 of us, all at different stages of learning French. Some had only learnt it for a year at school, so the teacher talked to them in easy French with some English. I wrote a wacky story called “L’histoire du bel ours.”
“Cinékids” is a programme of weekend film showings at the Cine Lumière, a comfortable cinema in the Institut Français main building around the corner (17 Queensberry Place). Advisory ages are given in the brochure and the films are in English, or in French with English subtitles. Some of the English ones for this spring were already well known in the UK, such as “Vice Versa” (Inside Out). There were some other films on offer which looked lovely and have not been released in cinemas here. There’s a new version of “Belle et Sébastien”, about the adventures of a lonely boy and a stray dog in the Alps. The film trailer looks beautiful but my daughter remembers seeing the old version of the film and doesn’t want to go (“too sad”). We’ve sometimes found that French children aren’t expected to be quite as sentimental about animals as English children are.
The Quentin Blake library is a great facility for all the French families living in London, but you don’t have to be French to enjoy it. If you like French language and culture, and the kids know a bit of French, away you go – c’est parti!
Bibliothèque Quentin Blake
32 Harrington Road
London SW7 3ES
Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri: 1.00 pm – 6.00 pm
Sat: 12 noon – 6 pm