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8 april 2019

Pancakes-Paris is a chipper tale, written just after the end of the second world war. It begins in Paris in the late winter, not long after the Liberation. Times are tough; French children divide existence into Before and After the Occupation, and they aren't even sure, anymore, that there was a Before.

Crepes, the harbinger of Lent and springtime, are just a dream. But one day, our hero Charles helps two American GIs find their way in the twisty city streets, and they reward him with a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix. This poses some problems for unEnglished Charles. He resolves to take his prize to the U.S. Embassy and get some translation on the fly. Pretty soon his GI pals show up again, and, fortified with a cornucopia of provisions, they make it a Mardi Gras to remember for Charles and his family.

That's legitimately a nice story, and Georges Schreiber's upbeat pictures make it the more enjoyable. If it's hard to say, 70+ years later, why Claire Huchet Bishop's book was a Newbery runner-up … well, it's harder to say that about a lot of other books, so it's best just to enjoy this little tale of cultural contact across recipes for comfort food.

The one weirdness worth noting comes in the embassy scene. The first person Charles sees in the embassy appears to be "the brother of the Negro lady of the red box" (35). The man, "beautifully dressed in an ample coat of the finest material … with gold braid here and there" is, to an American reader of 1947 at least, instantly recognizable as an usher in livery. But Charles assumes he's the Ambassador. And not because he's wowed by a snazzy uniform, but because "wasn't America a democracy?" (36)

Charles hands the man the Aunt Jemima and the usher starts to "laugh and laugh." One wonders who this ephemeral black fictional creation of a long-dead French-American white writer and her Belgian-American white illustrator was laughing at, or with. Getting handed a reproduction of a racist stereotype by a beaming white kid may have been all in a day's work, but it can't have sat well with him. The usher is not mean to Charles, but he just points him in another direction; he doesn't become a Magical Negro. It's the last we see of him.

One wonders. Bishop is best, or worst, remembered for her classic picture book (with Kurt Wiese), The Five Chinese Brothers, which now seems somewhat racist. I'm not sure if it is, but suffice to say it wouldn't be written the same way nowadays, and thus Bishop seems to be under a bit of a cloud. But here, about ten years after Chinese Brothers, she seems to say to an American child reader: OK, you would never mistake a Negro for an ambassador. But if you live in such a free country, why the heck not? I wonder how many American kids, of all colors, asked themselves that in the 1940s.

Bishop, Claire Huchet. Pancakes-Paris. Illustrated by Georges Schreiber. New York: Viking, 1947.