I’d never heard of Susie Morgenstern before I picked up a hardbound copy of A Book of Coupons (#109 for 2009) from the Book Sale bargain bin. It was P15, in pristine condition, and I initially thought it was one of those booklets that had tear-out coupons for little good deeds that you could give out to friends and family members.
When I got home, I realized it was a chapter book and read it in one sitting. A few weeks later, I found a copy of Susie Morgenstern’s Secret Letters from 0 to 10 (#110 for 2009) for P10 at a roving book sale and I ended up reading it in one sitting too!
Reading the back flap of one of the books, I found out that Susie Morgenstern is one of the most popular children’s book writers in France, with over forty books for children. Interestingly, while she writes primarily in French, she is an American who moved to the south of France over thirty years ago! Her recent books, however, have been translated in English, so now more readers have been enjoying her books.
A Book of Coupons is about a class at the Marie Curie school in France and their peculiar new teacher Monsieur Noel. On the first day of school, the class is disappointed to find that their teacher for the year is a fat and wrinkly old man.
But as Monsieur Noel has a few tricks up his sleeves — he passes out a strange gift to each kid: a book of coupons for a variety of things: a coupon for sleeping late, a coupon for skipping a day of school, a coupon for losing your homework, a coupon for getting out of trouble, a coupon for singing at the top of your lungs wherever you like, a coupon for a never-ending recess, a coupon for hugging whomever you like, and many more.
Monsieur Noel tells the class, “I love giving presents, and I am going to give them to you every single day. I’m giving you the whole year of lessons for free. I’m giving away books. I’m giving away penmanship and spelling. I’m giving away math and science. I’m giving away everything life has taught me. I’m even throwing in cataclysms.”
And Monsieur Noel does that. He introduces the kids to David Copperfield; he teaches them to do the jitterbug; and he exposes them to life’s little trials, like sending a letter at the post office, and buying train tickets at the station.
Monsieur Noel cautions the class, “Don’t forget — you all have coupons in life. Any you don’t use will die when you do.”
Monsieur Noel’s unconventional teaching method catches the attention of the strict, no-nonsense Principal Incarnation Perez, and trouble brews in the school, but the kids realize how much fun Monsieur Noel has brought into the school . As the school year winds down and Monsieur Noel’s contract is terminated, the kids work together to give their beloved teacher a gift he will never forget.
Meanwhile, Secret Letters from 0 to 10, which is actually an ALA Notable book and a Le Prix Totem (the French equivalent of the Newbery Medal) awardee, is about ten year old Ernest Morlaisse, who has life has been a routine ever since he can remember.
Enter Victoria de Montardent, the new girl in school, who takes Ernest’s life on a whirl. She proclaims Ernest as her boyfriend and predicts they’ll marry in thirteen years, eight months, and three days; introduces Ernest to chocolate, meat fondue, croissants, and rich food that is a far cry from the thin soup that Ernest has had for dinner every single day of his life; and makes Ernest realize that he hasn’t really lived before.
“For Ernest, life was suddenly full of surprises, and he learned that something new and marvelous could happen every single day. The first, and most marvelous thing had been Victoria, and the other minor, medium, and magnificent marvels had followed. Ernest woke up looking forward to each day, just wondering more and more what would happen next. It was as if he had been living at the wrong time, with a dead mother, a missing father, a panic-stricken grandmother, and an anxious Germaine, and he himself had been half asleep, like Sleeping Beauty, waiting for Princess Charming to wake him up for his real life.”
I liked these two Susie Morgenstern books because they’re different from any of the middle-reader books in my collection, which are mostly American. The books are light and funny, but offer great insights for readers of any age, and the French-ness is really charming — from the musical names (Hubert Noel, Benedicte, Charles, Constance, Laurent) to the cuisine (fondue! croissants! truffles! and a lot of couscous!) and even the romance (I don’t think I’ve ever read “make love” in a children’s book before!).
I really love how the books embrace life, embodying the French spirit of joie de vivre. It’s not a theme that’s directly tackled in books for this age group, and I think it’s never too early to start driving the message of living life to the fullest, especially when this day and age when kids have more issues to deal with.
Susie Morgenstern is a refreshing change in the middle-reader genre, and I’ll definitely keep my eyes peeled for more of her books.
My copies: A Book of Coupons, hardcover with dust jacket; Secret Letters from o to 1o, trade paperback
My rating: A Book of Coupons, 4/5 stars; Secret Letters from 0 to 10, 4.5/5 stars
Cover image from sxc.hu