I’ve been bedeviled by The Little Prince since ninth grade. That year, my state’s French final exam contained a passage that began:
S’il vous plait… Dessine-moi un mouton.
Please draw me a sheep? What was that supposed to mean? I soon discovered that the nonsensical passage that lost me points on my French Regents came from the most famous modern children’s story in France.
The Little Prince was written in 1943 by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a French pilot who escaped to the United States after the German occupation. It tells the story of a mail carrier whose plane has crashed in the middle of the Sahara. There he meets a strange little golden-haired boy who seems to have dropped from the sky as well. As we find out, the Little Prince does indeed come from Asteroid B 612, and is in need of a sheep to keep the growth of baobab trees in check on his tiny planet.
Although only 100 pages long and filled with charming little watercolors by de Saint-Exupéry himself, The Little Prince actually falls into the category of children’s books that may be more appealing to readers once they have left childhood. Its underlying message is the need to hold onto a childlike way of seeing the world. That message has kept the book popular with audiences around the world since its publication. It’s inspired a French pop song, a movie musical, a museum in Japan, and numerous other incarnations.
In 2007, the French writer and artist Joann Sfar (Little Vampire Goes to School) produced a graphic novel version of The Little Prince, with the approval of de Saint-Exupéry’s family. (The flyer vanished on a wartime reconnaisance mission over southern France in 1944; the remains of his plane was discovered off the coast of Marseille in 1998.) My first question on hearing about it was whether the graphic novel would make the book more accessible to younger readers. The answer is, perhaps.
Visually, the graphic novel adds details that make the story easier to follow, but he also makes it more grown-up. Sfar uses de Saint-Exupéry’s illustrations as a jumping-off point for his own interpretation, staying true to the quiet, simple style while making it richer and more modern. He also shows us two characters who de Saint-Exupéry left to the readers’ imagination: the pilot and the rose. The pilot, as some reviewers have pointed out, resembles de Saint-Exupéry himself. The rose becomes a tiny woman in a skin-tight suit who stretches and poses and bats her eyelids like a miniature Josephine Baker. She’s a much sexier figure than you’d normally find in children’s literature.
Sfar’s adapatation of the story also moves it in both directions. Using images to propel the story allows him to cut out much of the narration, making it quicker to read. But the graphic novel is also more intense, with nightmare sequences which don’t appear in the original story.
In the end, though, what matters is that Sfar, like de Saint-Exupéry, manages to convince you that for all his independence and common sense the Little Prince is not just a planet-hopping alien but also a young boy, full of curiosity about the universe and himself. Whatever it is in this strange tale that has enchanted readers for more than half a century has been recreated in Joann Sfar’s graphic novel.
The publisher provided a copy of this book for review purposes.