childhood memories of French and the origins of 'Matin Lapin'

My original interest in French started at a very young age: when I was about 4 years old my Granny B came to visit and brought me a couple of books - one was in French and one was a beautiful story based in France. The first book was for very young children, which my Granny had brought back from one of her many trips to France, and just consisted of pictures of animals with their names in French. 'Papillon' became my new favourite word (I was obsessed with butterflies at the time) and I would astound my friends and teachers with my fancy new skills at school in the weeks after every one of my Granny's visits.

The other book that I clearly remember was set in Paris, I think it must have been set in a boarding school, and was about the adventures of a little girl named Madeline. I always assumed the book was written by a Frenchman, but it was actually written and illustrated by an Austrian by the name of Ludwig Bemelmans. Ludwig was the son of a Belgian painter, and his first language was French, so I guess I wasn't totally wrong. I only ever had one Madeline book, 'Madeline's Rescue', the second book in the series of six. I've never even read any of the other Madeline books, I didn't need to as the one I had was absolutely delightful, the illustrations were beautifully stylised (Ludwig won the Caldecott Medal, an American prize for illustration, for 'Madeline's Rescue' in 1954), and the stories were charmingly written all in rhyme.

In the story of Madeline's Rescue, Madeline falls into the River Seine and is rescued by a lovely dog, which she names Genevieve and takes home to live with her and the rest of the girls. Their landlord doesn't like animals and throws Genevieve out into the street, but she comes back later that night and gives birth to lots of puppies! It's a simple story I admit (I was only 4 years old, after all) but everything about it is just perfect. I used to read it day after day, out loud to myself or to anyone who would listen. It was the first book I learned to read all the way through completely by myself, and I couldn't help but show off my pride at this accomplishment by repeatedly reading it aloud evening after evening, in front of the fire in the little flat in which I grew up. Although I lived in that flat from birth until I was about 12 years old, that is still one of the most vivid memories I have of the old place (most of the other memories I have of that house were from various Christmases spent there - for those of you who don't already know, I really love Christmas).

Unfortunately, after that brief and naive flirtation with the French language, my interest in it diminished as I got older and when I was at high school I really did not enjoy studying French. Perhaps it was the teacher, perhaps it was the loud classmates, or perhaps I simply lost interest because I was a teenager, and that's just what happens. Typically, as soon as I was no longer forced to study French at school, my interest in it picked up again. During university I taught myself some interesting phrases, and took far more of an interest in learning it than I ever had at school. In the second year of my degree I spent a month in a little town in the south of France, staying with my Granny's best friend who had lived there for years. Very few people in the town knew any English, so I had to use all the French I knew around and about town. I spent my days sitting on the grassy bank of a halcyon blue river watching kingfishers diving to catch fish while drawing pictures and making pretty beaded things; it was like paradise. After only a month I had learned so much more than I had expected - I felt I had been fully immersed in the French way of life and almost didn't want to come back to uni in the autumn.

Upon my return, I drew a tiny picture of a rabbit for my Granny and named it 'Matin Lapin'. It had nothing to do with mornings, at least not consciously, I just thought the words sounded as though they belonged together. My Granny kept that picture on a little shelf just outside her bedroom, and it was when I was living with her after I had graduated and was trying to think of a name for the little business I had dreams of setting up (where I could sell butterflies and beaded things and pretty illustrations) that I was reminded of that little picture I drew for her.

So that is where the name 'Matin Lapin' comes from, in case you were wondering :)

What were your favourite books when you were young?

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