Today I’d like to give a loud shout-out to author Hennie Jacobs and her uniquely bilingual children’s books. While it’s true that, as a rule, I no longer feature specific titles for bilingual children’s books at this site (continuing to do so is beyond my capacity), I feel that Hennie has taken an inspired approach to the challenge of creating “bilingual books” and I want to share her work with you.
What makes Hennie’s books different from the many other bilingual books I’ve seen is the way she incorporates the two languages in her “Betty & Cat” books. (To date, Hennie has produced three books in this series, in various pairings of these languages: English, French, Dutch, and Spanish.) While typical bilingual books for children will tell the story twice, with mirror translations of the text, Hennie has written books with two characters—“Betty” (a dog) and “Cat” (yes, a cat)—and each character speaks a different language. In other words, these stories are told through code-switching, with the dog speaking one language and the cat speaking the other language.
Here’s an example of this from the book she kindly sent to me, a Spanish/English version of At Home with Betty & Cat. Note that the dog speaks Spanish and the cat speaks English. Throughout the book, their voices—and the two languages—alternate in the same way.
Although this twist on traditional bilingual books may seem simple, it must be handled with considerable skill so that the story holds together well. My impression is that Hennie has achieved this aim admirably, creating clever and colorful books that bilingual families and schools will find fresh and fun as well as beneficial to their bilingual goal. (Kudos to artist Christine Duvernois, too, for her lovely and playful illustrations.)
At the same time, I should note that because the books contain no translation of the text, readers and listeners need to already have some ability in the two languages used, otherwise it may be difficult to enjoy them fully without a dictionary at hand.
To learn more about the appealing “Betty & Cat” books, read the revealing interview (below) that we pursued through an email exchange. You’ll find further information, too, at Hennie’s website.
Hennie has also agreed to provide free copies of her books to two readers of Bilingual Monkeys (and two books each!) so be sure to enter this giveaway, which closes on Friday, March 16.
Interview with Hennie Jacobs
Could you please tell us about yourself?
I was born in Holland, immigrated to Montreal at the age of 6 and “remmigrated” back to Holland as part of a mid-life crisis. I’ve written all my life, primarily working as a copywriter. I live half the time in Holland and the other half in the mountains in France.
What led you to become an author, and in particular, an author of bilingual books?
I can’t not write—so while I was working (I’m retired now) the need/urge was fulfilled. Once I was retired though, there was a lack. A friend here in France—an illustrator—complained about the fact that she was feeling excluded from her grandkids’ upbringing because their father was Irish and so they spoke English (hers wasn’t so hot!). She asked if we couldn’t do a bilingual book together.
I wasn’t sure. I hate the idea of having to read something twice in two languages, plus, my experience in writing in different languages taught me that interpreting is closer to the truth than just translating. In the end, the idea for the books just sort of popped out!
How would you describe the “Betty & Cat” books? Are the characters based on any real-life companions or experiences?
In fact, having decided to consider this proposal, one morning in bed with the real Betty and Cat, the idea came to me. The critters would do the talking, each in their own language.
Of course, Betty was French—she was a sled dog, a chien de tete—given to us by a musher friend who realised she was depressed once work finished and she had to go back to just being one of the pack (Betty was a bit of a princess!). Cat showed up one day from who knows where, and so it was logical that he would speak English (or the foreign language).
How did you come to write these books in this particular format, where Betty speaks one language and Cat speaks another?
From my time as an immigrant and growing up in Montreal, code-switching as it’s now called was just the normal way of communicating. If you’re bilingual, you switch back and forth depending on the situation or how you want to express something.
You can hear it on the trams in Amsterdam: two Moroccan or Turkish kids switch from one language to another, depending on which one suits the idea they want to express. Same in Montreal, same in Singapore.
Kids, too, are completely at ease with speaking or hearing a language they’re not 100% at home in—they’re most likely still learning their own maternal language, so it’s all new. And in the end, it’s the story that attracts them. For years, I think, when I was reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I thought “into temptation” was folks being unwillingly led to a place called “Temptation.” Kids cope in their own way. I know a little French boy who moved with his family to Australia. The first time they came back—he was about five—he came into the kitchen and said (in English; he somehow figured out that that would work best for us): “I’m thirsty.” I told him he knew where the glasses were, and to get one. On tip toes in front of the cabinet, he said, “I can’t actually reach them.” For me this was amazing: here was a five year old who was already choosing his own very particular words, constructing his own English, one that would suit him.
When the books first came out, someone in Holland told me the English was too difficult. Horrified (all criticism was deadly in those early days!) I started thinking and went back to my own experience. I was almost seven when I started learning English. By the age of nine I’d discovered The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in the library. It’s still one of my favourite books, but difficult on a number of levels (the language, the allegories, etc.). However, it was the story that carried me though. Not once did I think of turfing the books because I didn’t get the language.
In what ways can your books, and bilingual books in general, be of support to a parent’s bilingual or multilingual aim for their children?
The books came into being because a grandparent felt excluded from the bilingual experience of her grandchildren. What is nicer for an adult than sitting on a couch with a child and reading a book together!? This idea is also valid for parents in a multicultural/bilingual family. Bilingualism, multiculturalism, these are rich enhancements to the human experience. And it’s fun playing with language! Why should anyone feel left out?
A friend in London who is French (her husband is English and they have a daughter), said she felt all teary when her daughter explained to her husband one day that a raspberry was called framboise in French. I think as adults, we have to remember that for kids, every day presents them with something new—whether it’s a word in their language or in the target language. It’s all so normal for them. It only feels weird for adults.
What lies ahead now for your writing and publishing?
I’ve just written a book about a group of kids, each with a different mother tongue, living in an English-language country. The goal is to make them feel more confident about being bilingual—it’s a super power, in fact!—and to make the idea of being bilingual more attractive—and acceptable!—to unilingual kids. (I think it’s interesting that so many of the people buying my books are speech therapists and psychologists working with ex-pat kids.)
I’m seriously looking for a publisher or at least an agent—for the superheroes book, but also to take Betty & Cat to the next level. I get so many requests from people asking if the books are available in this or that combination. Since I self-publish, I can only go to the printer so often (at the moment the kitty is still bare from the last printer’s run!). The Spanish versions were a real eye opener—they’re doing really well in places as far apart as Cuba, Lima and somewhere in Guatemala as well as Spain and the US!
Hennie is kindly offering signed copies of her books for this giveaway: 2 lucky winners will each receive 2 books of their choice, in their preferred language combinations. (Currently, these books have been produced in certain combinations of English, French, Dutch, and Spanish. For the particular language combinations available for each book, please see Hennie’s website.)
The two winners were picked randomly by my kids, with Lulu selecting…
Raquel in Canada
…and Roy selecting…
Deborah in the U.S.
Congratulations! And many thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway!
To enter the giveaway, just follow these three simple steps…
1. Share this post with others via social media. Help spread the word on Hennie’s books. Use the sharing buttons below or simply copy and paste this link…
2. Leave a comment below with the following information. (And please proofread your comment, before submission, to check that the information is complete.)
1. Your first name and where you live (Example: Adam in Japan)
2. Your children and their ages (Example: Girl, 13 and Boy, 10)
3. Your two (or more) languages (Example: Japanese, English, and Spanish)
4. What do you think about this sort of “bilingual book” that uses code-switching instead of translated text? (Example: I think there’s a lot of potential in this approach to “bilingual books” and it can produce effective and engaging results for both children and adults who have some ability in the languages used.)
3. All entries must be submitted by the morning of Friday, March 16 (Japan time). On that day, the comments will be printed out and cut apart to serve as entry slips for the drawing. The slips will be placed in a big, blue bucket then Lulu and Roy will each choose one winner at random. I’ll then contact the lucky winners by email and update this post with the results.
Please note that we may not reply to these comments, but Hennie and I certainly look forward to seeing them. Thank you for entering the giveaway, and for sharing this information about Hennie’s work with others!