In the last few weeks, I’ve been ranting a fair amount about my general dislike of the Franklin books to any parent of small children who will listen. Now, in all fairness, the story books aren’t that bad — some of them are a bit humourous (« Frankin Snoops, » par exemple), they have plot lines, and the fact that Franklin and his buddies are all different species, from snails to moose, means that there’s a fair amount in there about equity (not spelled out, but still). The boy and girl buddies are also of equal coolness, although the boy buddies far outnumber the girl buddies (à la Smurfette), and the textbook obnoxious know-it-all friend is, of course, a girl (à la Hermione Granger. Although I’ll concede that I might be reading too much into that one as Beaver isn’t called « bossy » in the books, unlike Herminone, who, arguably would be called « a strong leader » instead of « a bossy know-it-all » were she not a girl).
What really irked me about the books, other than the moralistic endings, was that Franklin’s friends don’t have names. They are called Bear, Beaver, Otter and so-on. This might be nice if a kid is just learning animal names, but crappy because the whole world revolves around this turtle, as though his friends don’t have identities of their own and just exist to be the buddies of this Named Turtle. A poor way to teach empathy to kids, I’d argue. How can you put yourself in your buddy’s shoes if your buddy doesn’t have a name? Not to be a stickler about it, but there’s a reason the right to a name is recognized in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 7 : « You have a right to have a name and a nationality. »)
I had decided that my child’s love of this series was really not that huge a deal, and I could overlook its shortcomings to foster his lifelong love of books, so when I was doing my last big city library book run, I picked up some more Franklin books. Lo and behold, the books have been translated into French and our beloved English Franklin is also an adorable French Benjamin. But that’s not all : the characters in the French version all have names! Bear becomes Martin Ours, Snail becomes Arnaud Escargot, Beaver becomes Lili Castor, Badger becomes Odile Blaireau and so on and so forth. After reading the French version to F. for two days (and adopting the French names when reading, and translating, the English), he started talking about the other characters, which hadn’t been the case prior. True story. His race car driver figurine is now called Lili Castor and Arnaud is his « Where’s Waldo » when we’re reading the books.
All this to say that children’s books are sociologically fascinating (as are toddlers), and that if we don’t have a name for something–or someone–we cannot easily conceptualize it, talk or learn about it (think structural racism, think domestic violence, think transphobia, neocolonialism, food sovereignty, you name it. We think about it because it is named.) And there is no place for namelessness in children’s books.