“Presenting the history of Paris and Notre Dame in a children’s book is a delicate work,” says the author of the new book The Girl and the Cathedral: The Story of Notre Dame de Paris.
The news of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in April 2019 stunned not only the Catholics who worshipped there, but people of all faiths around the globe. The Register spoke with author Nicolas Jeter about his response to the devastation, which came in the form of a children’s book.
What inspired you to write The Girl and the Cathedral?
I’ve spent a lot of time in France. I first moved there in 2006, about a year out of high school. I spent two years all over Paris and the northwest of the country, getting to know the people and appreciate the peaceful beauty of the history, architecture and language.
I’ve been back a couple more times since that first visit, and I’ve tried to keep up with the language by reading French literature, Victor Hugo in particular.
Also, even though I was born and raised in Texas, both sides of my family tree come through Louisiana, and before that, we were French. The point is: I have a relationship with the country that I value.
When Notre Dame burned earlier this year, my friend David Miles, founder of Bushel & Peck Publishing, called with the idea of coming up with a children’s book about Notre Dame. My affection for France is in some ways synonymous with my affection for Notre Dame.
It is literally the first place I went to the morning my plane landed when I moved to France. I’ve spent hours just staring at the cathedral, trying to memorize it, feeling its oldness.
I’m not an expert by any stretch, but I certainly count myself among those who appreciate and love it.
And David pointed out that there don’t seem to be many books that 1) present the story of Notre Dame and 2) are aimed at children. So we started brainstorming how that might look, and I agreed to join the team as the author. I’ve always wanted to write.
I’ve always written, even as a small child, but I had never had an opportunity like this, and I was thrilled to be on board.
Why do you think the story of Notre Dame has such wide appeal beyond the borders of Paris?
I think one direct cause is that Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris [better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame] carried the story to the world, and we haven’t forgotten it.
Another, more broad, answer is that the history of France is the history of the world. Much of the art, literature, philosophy and political thought adopted throughout the world came out of France, so we share significant French symbols like Notre Dame.
As a religious symbol and site, Notre Dame has dominated the imagination and reverence of Christians of all denominations for centuries. It doesn’t hurt that Notre Dame is so beautiful.
Tell me about the narrative and why you chose to construct this tale through the perspective of a little girl.
We wanted the story to be sort of an ode to and imitation of [the children’s book] The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in that the story takes place in a fantastical, ethereal setting where the narrator has an ongoing conversation with the main character.
So we have an unnamed narrator (who is never shown in the story), and he meets a little girl who lives on an island.
She plants a garden, and the garden is Paris, and in that garden she plants her greatest flower, Notre Dame de Paris.
The story is told through the garden, through its flowers, and through the changes and imagery that a garden can show. So the story is at the same time very much a fairy tale and very much an absolutely true story.
Like the boy in The Little Prince, the girl is sort of this timeless, undefined creature.
She watches over Paris.
I like this model because it enabled me to take the very real, very complicated, wonderful and often-horrendous history of Paris and Notre Dame and place it in a very unreal, mythical setting that I, and the reader, can grasp in a short book.
Another inspiration is Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.
His main character is a 6-year-old boy, but the boy, Calvin, doesn’t talk or think in the way we expect children to behave. I wanted the little girl in my story to be like that: a child, but also capable of expressing profound ideas in grown-up ways.
What is your favorite part about the book? What makes this book stand out from other children’s books?
I love the beginning, where the narrator meets the little girl.
I imagine it as such a peaceful setting: just the girl and the narrator and a cathedral.
I also love the moment where, as the cathedral is burning, we see that the spirits of people long dead have joined the people of Paris — their descendants — watching … with them.
It’s a powerful image, and it’s the best representation of how I felt watching the cathedral burn. I thought of my French ancestors.
I didn’t try to simplify the vocabulary or make it directly accessible to small children. In telling the story of Notre Dame, I didn’t think, “Can a kid understand this sentence?” I thought, “Is this a story a kid might want to know?” The priority was capturing a vision of who this little girl was.
She doesn’t speak like many children, and it’s something I think children will like.
Illustrator Sara Ugolotti is incredible. Her illustrations make this book. Every bit of enjoyment anyone will get out of this story is 100% packaged in her illustrations. I’m so thrilled she agreed to be a part of this.
What did you learn in the process of studying the history of Notre Dame that you found particularly striking?
I learned a lot of broad history.
For example, I didn’t realize the steeple (which burned, unfortunately) was a relatively recent addition.
Also, I did not know before how quickly the cathedral was built. I think it took about 200 years.
That just seems fast to me, given the technology of the day.
I learned that the original roof used wooden beams from a forest that no longer grows in France, of a species of tree that is no longer available; so when they reconstruct the roof, they won’t be able to use the same wood.
A lot of those things are broad-strokes looks at the history that I tried to communicate, if not explicitly show, in the story.
How can interested readers get their hands on a copy or get involved with the book launch? Tell me about the give-back effort you are doing alongside the book launch.
We had a successful Kickstarter run over the summer for those who wanted to get their hands on a preorder.
The book will be ready for bookshelves by April, and another round of preorders will start shortly before that. Once the book is sold, it will be available online at outlets like Amazon, and, of course, we are getting it on bookshelves.
For every book sold, Bushel & Peck Publishing donates a book to children who don’t have access to books.
It’s something fairly unique about the company that I think people can get excited about.
writes from Georgia.
TO PURCHASE THE BOOK
HOW YOU CAN HELP REBUILD NOTRE DAME