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Interview with Hennie Jacobs, Author of the Uniquely Bilingual “Betty & Cat” Book Series

"Betty & Cat" bilingual books

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.

At Home with Betty & Cat

First page from the book

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

Hennie and friends

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!

Giveaway of "Betty & Cat" books

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! :mrgreen:

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!


20 Responses

  1. 1. Jane in Japan
    2. 2 boys, 6 and 3
    3. English, Japanese, Catalan (as well as some French and Spanish remaining!)
    4. This is a really interesting approach. My eldest son is always switching back and forth, depending on who he is talking to. I am sure he would enjoy the books too. (Now he uses English and Japanese, but I have a couple of books in French, Catalan and Spanish, which he occasionally asks me to read to him; he also says he wants to visit the Galapagos and needs Spanish there!)

  2. 1. Amy in France
    2. Two girls of 2 and 5 years old
    3. Our minority languages are English and Spanish. The majority language is French.
    4. I fell in love with the concept of each character speaking a different language. Anytime my eldest daughter picks one of our bilingual books, she asks my husband and I to read the text in our respective language, which can make the story very repetitive by the end of it as my daughter understands both languages equally well. Hennie’s book is great as it would enable us to read the story with two voices in two languages and interacting with one another. A code-switching book also goes to debunk the myth that the person is confused. Code-switching is a good thing and Hennie’s books illustrates this.

  3. Bonjour!
    1. Maki in France
    2. Two girls, 12 and 1.5
    3. French, English, Japanese, and Spanish
    4. This approach is very interesting and I feel it’s like us. I speak to my daughter in Japanese and my daughter replies in French. Or my baby speaks by herself in English, French, and Japanese. So I think it’s essential that multiple languages exist naturally in everyday life for children to be bilingual or multilingual. I really want to try it and enjoy it with my daughters.

  4. *Please don’t enter me in the draw, I just want to make a “normal” comment, and I don’t want to win a book my daughter can’t read when there are others whose kids could.*

    1 – Mayken in France
    2 – One girl, 7½
    3 – German and French
    4 – I’ve never been interested in the other kind of bilingual books, which has the same text in both languages, because you’ll mostly read it in whatever language feels easier to you. When I was learning English, I discovered chapter books that were bilingual like “Betty and Cat”, a story about two kids, one with English and one with German as their native language, and a passive understanding of the other. So each would tell their part of the story in their language, and in dialogue, each would speak their language. I didn’t always understand all the English words at first, but the context of the story helped. So, in short, I’ve been a fan of this kind of bilingual books for 30+ years, and I’d love to see more of them as my daughter is beginning to read by herself.

    Being a children’s books’ writer myself, I would love to write these bilingual stories myself – English-German or French-German.

  5. Claire in the UK
    3 children: boys aged 7 and 1; girl aged 4
    English and French speaking
    I love the sound of these books. Our daughter can be reluctant to listen to full stories in French as she finds it harder than English, but at the same time she’s enthusiastic about ‘daddy’s language’ and this sounds like a great approach to build her confidence. Our boys are completely different ages, but I think would both enjoy them. The youngest is still developing his language so any reading is great! The oldest is showing a real ability not just to speak his minority language but to think about how things are said in different languages. I also like the subtle message in these books that speakers of different languages can communicate!

  6. Sound like interesting books! Great giveaway…thanks Adam!
    1. Tracey in Spain
    2. Girl 6, Boy 2
    3. Majority language Spanish, minority language English
    4. I don’t tend to buy bilingual books as I find that as they are usually in both languages the story is shortened and condensed to allow the text to be in both languages but I like the idea of this type of code switching bilingual book as I feel it is very realistic and reflects how bilingual children live and code switch on a daily basis.

  7. 1. Wojtek in Poland
    2. Girl, Lucy 4
    3. Polish, English minority language

    I have come across bilingual articles in HighFive magazine we subscribed. In each issue, there is a story about Spunky monkey and Pepe Parrot who live in the Costa Rican rain forest (English / Spanish). There is a little dictionary of words written in Spanish.

    Although we don’t learn Spanish, I do think it is easier to learn the foreign language when the text is immersed in the known language.
    It is always better to learn words and phrases when they come from the story you read.

  8. 1. Raquel in Canada
    2. Boy 4, Girl 2 & Girl 8 months
    3. Spanish/English/Galician
    4. This is such a great idea! Can’t wait to read the entire story!
    I’m a teacher, I was raised bilingual and now I’m trying to raise my own kids trilinguals, also I’m a big fan myself of kid’s books! This is a great idea…I kind of hope more authors will follow…

  9. Love your books! I teach Spanish to English speaking children and their parents. Switching back and forth is such a good challenge to the brain and a natural part of being bilingual. I am recommending your books to my older children. It would be nice to have some books with fewer words that would appeal more to toddlers?

    Thank you and I can’t wait to order books as well!

  10. 1. Juliana, USA
    2. Boy, 4; boy, 2; boy, 3 months
    3. English and Spanish
    4. I love this because it so accurately reflects how our bilingual family functions…one parent speaks English, one speaks Spanish. I also like that both of us can read it to our boys and that it emphasizes both languages equally.

  11. 1. Liesbeth in the UK
    2. Boy, nearly 2
    3. Dutch and English
    4. My son, though still very young, is increasingly aware of how daddy says things and how mamma says those things differently, and switches and patchworks beautifully. As I’m the main source of the minority language in his life, I’m keen to explore new formats of exposure like this type of book as well as to continue to build a Dutch library.

  12. 1. Mari in Australia
    2. Boy, 4 months
    3. English, Spanish and Basque
    4. I like the idea of each character speaking a different language. It feels natural to me since I sometimes do that with my partner. He will talk to me in English (his native language) and I will answer back in Spanish (mine).

  13. 1. Chiara in Italy
    2. Boy, 4
    3. Italian and English (+ French or Spanish…we just started, let’s see which one will stay…)
    4. I am really curious about the different approach of these bilingual books. Usually I don’t particularly like bilingual books, I prefer different books for different languages, but having the characters each speaking one language makes sense as it reflects the reality of a lot of bilinguals.

  14. 1. Raquel in Spain
    2. Girl, 4 and Boy, 1
    3. English and Spanish.
    4. I love this idea. Now that I’m teaching my daughter to read in English while she’s learning to read in Spanish, these books would allow her to do both at once and not have to choose reading in one language or the other. Also, since I don’t like having anything in Spanish at home -there’s already plenty around us- this would allow me to bend the rule instead of breaking it. I also like that it shows children that speak different languages is more common than they think.

  15. 1. Paul in Mexico
    2. Twin 5 year-old girls
    3. English and Spanish
    4. Right now, about 95% of the books we have are in English (hooray!) but that means it is a little bit more of a challenge for my wife (who speaks good English but is more comfortable in her native Spanish) to read to our girls. This way we could share the reading, she can do the Spanish bit and I can do the English bit which essentially means more family time!

  16. 1) Melissa in Canada
    2) boy 13, boy 10, girl 8, girl 7
    3) English, French, Spanish
    4) I love the concept behind these bilingual books. My children always try so much harder in their minority language when they realize they are not the only ones who speak more than one language. I think they will really identify with Betty and Cat.

  17. 1. Yinhe in Taiwan
    2. Boy, 10 months old
    3. English, Italian, Chinese
    4. I like illustrated books and the pictures by Hennie Jacobs look really nice. I foresee we’ll be reading more and more to our little boy, first in English (me) and Chinese (my husband and rest of the family who speak Mandarin Chinese), and later on we plan to add in Italian as well.

  18. 1. Carrie in the USA
    2. 4 kids ages 7, 5, 2, and infant
    3. English and Spanish
    4. I love this idea! I think it is a great way to show kids that both languages have equal value. And while it is certainly necessary in some cases to stick strictly to one language, the reality is that there are many other situations where we freely code-switch between languages, and that can be a wonderful experience also.

  19. 1. My name is Deborah and I live in the USA.
    2. My adorable children: Frank, 5 1/2 years old, and Garrett, 2 years and 9 months old.
    3. I am from Brazil, so I use Portuguese with my boys (inside and outside of the house); my husband is from the US, so he uses English to communicate with me and our children.
    4. I believe a code-switching book triggers parts of the brain that are otherwise dormant, whereas reading a monolingual book or a translated text can be frustrating and even demeaning for the target language.
    We have a few bilingual books at home, and every time I read them to my boys, I feel like the emphasis on the target language is being taken away by the majority language translated text.
    As for code-switching books, I also love the idea of the story being told in two languages not twice, but only once and in an uninterrupted way.

    If I were one of the lucky winners, and knowing there is no English-Portuguese version of Hennie’s books yet, I would choose the English-Spanish version since all of us at home are trying to learn some Spanish (I use my Portuguese to decode Spanish words and, most of the time, it works!).

  20. These books are a great idea. I will have to look into them. My two-year-old pays better attention to books when mom and dad read them together, mom in Spanish and Dad in English. We like to read bilingual books that way, repeating the one has said in the other language. But this would be a rather exciting approach, more like the way we talk to our son in two different languages not saying exactly the same thing.

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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