Bishop, Claire Huchet
BISHOP, Claire Huchet
Born circa 1899, Brittany, France; died 11 March 1993 married Frank Bishop
Born into a family and a culture where storytelling, particularly of traditional tales, was a normal part of life, Claire Huchet Bishop seems to have come naturally to her career as a children's librarian and author. After studying at the Sorbonne, Bishop opened the first French children's library, L'Heure Joyeuse, in the years following World War I. There, in a library sponsored by an American Committee headed by Mrs. Herbert Hoover, she began to tell stories to children. When she married pianist Frank Bishop and accompanied him to New York City in the 1930s, she took a position in the New York Public Library, where she was also invited to be a storyteller. Her first book, The Five Chinese Brothers (1938), was a written version of a tale she had told children on two continents.
The Five Chinese Brothers, as befits a written version of an oral tale, has a simple, dramatic storyline; it makes extensive use of repetitions ("Your Honor, will you allow me to go and bid my mother good-bye?" asks each of the brothers. "It is only fair," the judge always replies); and it celebrates personal resourcefulness over social order. The Five Chinese Brothers has acquired the status of a modern classic.
The same structural qualities of the traditional oral tale appear in The Man Who Lost His Head (1942), which is also a picture book. This droll tale is about a man who, waking one morning without his head, sets out to find it. He tries three alternative heads—a pumpkin, a parsnip, and a piece of wood—before he regains his own through the help of a young and ragged magician with a penchant for extraordinary words. Bishop's other picture books include The Ferryman (1941), Augustus (1945), and Twenty-two Bears (1964).
Bishop is best known for The Five Chinese, but her short novels for children are also major achievements. In such books as Pancakes-Paris (1947), Twenty and Ten (1952), All Alone (1953), and A Present from Petros (1961), Bishop manages to simultaneously evoke the uniqueness of various cultures and the universality of childhood. Pancakes-Paris, for example, is the story of Charles, a ten-year-old postwar Parisian who wants desperately to make crêpes for his mother for Mardi Gras. But he has no milk, no eggs, no oil—nothing. Although two American soldiers provide a happy ending, the reality of Charles's life and its contrast with our own comes through.
The humanitarian impulse, evident in the soldiers who bring packages of food and supplies to Charles's family, is strong in Pancakes-Paris. A similar morality is at work in All Alone, the story of two young cowherds in the French Alps who, by example, persuade a village to give up rugged individualism and minding one's own business for a sense of community and brotherhood. Here, as in all her novels, Bishop celebrates courage, caring, and acceptance of responsibility, both for self and for others.
Accepting responsibility for others is a major theme in Twenty and Ten, the children's novel most closely connected to Bishop's writing for adults. It's the story of 20 French fifthgraders who have been sent to a country house to wait out the occupation, and of the 10 Jewish children they hid from the Nazis. In this book Bishop has used the device of a children's Christmas game called "The Flight into Egypt" to propose the oneness of Christians and Jews. This concern for religious harmony is also the force behind two later accomplishments: her noble foreword to an English edition of Jesus and Israel (Jésus et Israël) by the French historian Jules Isaac, and her own How Catholics Look at Jews (1974). The foreword to Jesus and Israel (1970) reveals Bishop's commitment to the battle against anti-Semitism and her conviction that even Vatican Council II did not go far enough in trying to eradicate anti-Jewish prejudice in the teachings of the Roman Catholic church.
The importance Bishop places on religion is reflected in her recreation of the life of Christ, Yeshu, Called Jesus (1966), and in her three saints' lives, Christopher the Giant (1950), Bernard and His Dogs (1952), and Martin de Porres, Hero (1954), all written for children. These books also reveal her ability to speak candidly about defects in the Catholic church, as in Martin de Porres, Hero which contains several depictions of the dandyism and self-indulgence that characterized some religious houses in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Bishop's spare style and dry wit are admirable. She is most effective in creating a sense of place and an awareness of cultural differences in her novels and in echoing the oral tradition in her picture-story books. It is also in her fiction that she most successfully integrates moral themes into the fabric of the work.
French Children's Books for English Speaking Children (1938). The King's Day (1940). France Alive (1947). Blue Spring Farm (1948). All Things Common (1950). The Big Loop (1955). Happy Christmas (ed. by Bishop, 1956). Toto's Triumph (1957). French Roundabout (1960). Lafayette: FrenchAmerican Hero (1960). Here is France (1969). The Truffle Pig (1971). Johann Sebastian Bach (1972). Georgette (1974).
Hopkins, L. B., Books are by People (1969). Schwartz, A. V., "On The Five Chinese Brothers," in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 3 (1977). Smaridge, N., Famous Modern Story Tellers for Young People (1969).
The Junior Book of Authors, S. J. Kunitz and H. Haycraft, eds, (1951).
LJ (Oct. 1977). PW (10 May 1947).
—KATHARYN F. CRABBE