Julie: the girl with a boy’s shadow

By Sophie Heywood

This blog post looks at one of the best-known anti-sexist picturebooks produced in France: Histoire de Julie qui avait une ombre de garçon, written by Christian Bruel and Anne Galland, with illustrations by Anne Bozellec (1976). Produced in the aftermath of the protest movements of ’68 and the rise of second wave feminism, Julie is a fearlessly dark exploration of the emotional fallout experienced by a little girl when her parents cannot accept her for who she is. 

The book opens amongst the city rooftops where Julie lives, and takes us into her bedroom. We learn she is a messy child who likes running around, roller-skating, and making up stories with her cat, ‘but she would like to be kissed nevertheless’. We then listen with the child as her mother despairs about her, and her father expresses his disapproval of her boyish behaviour. The parents’ body language in the drawings is hostile, as they tower over Julie. Julie is a tomboy, and she has failed her parents. They only love her when she is a good little girl. The French term for ‘tomboy’ is ‘garçon manqué’, which translates literally as a ‘failed boy’. The verb ‘manquer’ means to miss, to fail or to lack something. To be called a ‘garçon manqué’ is to be doubly condemned: Julie is not simply behaving badly as a girl by imitating boys, she lacks what it takes to be a boy.

This failure takes physical shape when Julie realises that her shadow is a boy. Her boy-self rejects everything Julie is supposed to do as a girl. A double-page illustration depicts a series of images of Julie and her shadow. Her boyish side takes over, and she starts kicking a football, and they play at marbles. Then girl Julie plays sensibly with a doll, but her boy shadow attacks it; Julie squats to pee like a girl, her boy shadow pees standing up; Julie carries a stack of plates, the boy shadow lets them fall; Julie sits knitting, the boy shadow plays at unravelling the balls of wool. Distressed at being so exposed, she tries to get rid of him by jumping in puddles, or trapping him in a door, but all to no avail. She cannot lose her shadow.Finally, at her wits’ end, Julie decides to dig a hole, so she can be ‘where it is always dark and there are no shadows’. In the park, she meets a boy. They begin to talk, and the boy confesses his sadness at being bullied for being too ‘girly’. Through sharing the pain caused by their failure to conform to their assigned gender identities, the children realise they are not alone. Julie concludes they have the right be who they are, in spite of the jars adults try to put them in. Julie has the right to be “Julie-the-minx, Julie-the-fury, Julie-Julie”.

Julie was the first book produced by a collective calling itself ‘Pour un autre merveilleux’ [‘For a different fairyland’].[1] This was a group of researchers, teachers, journalists, psychologists and artists dedicated to analysing contemporary children’s books. ‘We were part of the militant aftermath of May ‘68’, recalls Christian Bruel, who founded the collective. Children’s books and education offered ‘a second front’, through which they could effect radical social change where political action had failed.[2] The collective’s first pamphlet placed their work in the context of the ‘new wind’ that was ‘blowing in the land of publishing for young children’, in which ‘hitherto taboo themes are beginning to be discussed, experimental book design is booming, and paperback series are appearing.’[3]

With the production of Julie in 1976, the collective was turned into a more permanent publishing structure, called ‘Le Sourire qui Mord’ [‘The Smile that Bites’]. This tiny press sought to mobilise alternative distribution circuits to promote new ways of thinking about books for children.[4] Each Sourire qui Mord book came with a manifesto. The leaflet that accompanied Julie explained to adult intermediaries how the book was about ‘imperialism of the heart’, the violence of telling someone ‘to be who I want you to be, and I will love you’. Can a child resist such pressure, the leaflet asked?[5]

The inspiration for Julie came from Rose Bombonne (1975), by the Italians Adela Turin and Nella Bosnia, and which was part of a new wave of non-sexist books for children in the mid-seventies (see Kim Dhillon’s earlier post for this blog on American feminist children’s books in this period).[6] For Bruel it played a key role: ‘I became a publisher thanks to this book’, because ‘it was the first openly feminist children’s book to be published in France’.[7] He was impressed, but also critical of Rose Bombonne’s happy ending, in which the girl elephants find emancipation from restrictive gender roles through becoming grey like their male counterparts. Turin and Bosnia had opened the discussion, and with Histoire de Julie, written in collaboration with the artist Anne Bozellec and primary schoolteacher Anne Galland, the collective wanted to take it further, beyond the Manichaeism of the Italian tale. The manifesto for Julie argued that, in a society dominated by men, simply becoming a tomboy does little to emancipate girls, for it still supported the notion that to be female was something negative. It was important for Julie to realize that accepting ‘being Julie’ was the way to resist oppression and find happiness.[8] They also thought it was crucial to make the protagonist a girl, rather than an elephant or an animal, so that she was recognizable and readers could identify with her more readily.[9]

Against all their expectations, the book did well. Within nine months Julie had sold five thousand copies, and was warmly received by critics. Sales were principally through networks of leftist militants. As Bruel would later observe, this was an era when those on the margins could survive in publishing.[10] He suspects Julie came at just the right time, ideologically, artistically and sociologically speaking. It ‘seemed to answer a need for hope, for an outlet of some kind’.[11] Certainly the book coincided with the growth of the French second wave feminist movement, and a year earlier the Health Minister Simone Veil had passed a law legalizing abortion (Loi Veil, 1975) under the new, more socially liberal government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.[12]

Nevertheless, the book’s controversial subject matter did not go unnoticed. The French government has monitored the children’s publishing industry since a law regulating publications for the young was passed in 1949.[13] In July 1976, before the Sourire qui Mord had even become a legal entity, the collective received a warning letter from the 1949 law commission, in which they accused the book of being ‘morbid’, ‘depressing’ and ‘pornographic’.[14] Their production was then subject to scrutiny by the Commission for the next year, according to the provisions of the law. This posed little problem for a press so small that they only produced one book per year. In any case, and no doubt a sign of how attitudes to children’s publishing had changed since ’68, the commission took no further action, and Julie went to the bookshops uncensored.[15] The book provoked fierce debates in schools, in particular its brief reference to masturbation. Intermediaries often redacted this sentence before circulating the text.[16] It was also removed from the Italian translation of the book.[17] The translator and publisher Adela Turin told Bruel she would be sent to prison if she printed such an explicit reference to masturbation, and so he agreed to the changes.[18] Meanwhile no British or American editions were forthcoming. ‘They couldn’t stand Julie – no American publisher would touch the book!’

Over the course of the twenty years Le Sourire qui Mord operated, it sold over 120,000 copies, went into eight re-editions, and was translated into eleven languages.[19] If you are curious to find out more, Thierry Magnier’s children’s picturebooks list issued a new edition of Julie in September 2014.



[1] For a history of this collective, and Christian Bruel and his collaborators’ future publishing ventures, see Dominique Perrin and Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivrier (eds) Christian Bruel: auteur-éditeur, une politique de l’album (Paris, Editions du cercle de la librairie, 2014). I would also like to thank Christian Bruel for accepting to be interviewed for the ‘Children’s ‘68’ project, and for his comments on an earlier draft of this blog post.

[2] See Bruel’s opening remarks in his interview with Nathalie Beau and Éliane Meynial, ‘Rencontre avec Christian Bruel’, Revue des livres pour enfants, 212: 2003, pp. 66-70; Bruel develops in more detail his thoughts on May ’68 and its impact on children’s picturebooks in his article ‘Sous les pavés l’album, des influences croisées d’une période et d’un genre littéraire’, Revue des livres pour enfants, 244 : 2008, pp. 89-97.

[3] Bulletin du collectif ‘Pour un autre merveilleux’, July 1976. The archives of Sourire qui Mord and Bruel’s subsequent publishing venture, Editions Etre, are both preserved at the University of Clermont-Ferrand Special Collections, http://bibliotheque.clermont-universite.fr/fonds-christian-bruel. The Sourire qui Mord documents are under BCU cote C10124.

[4] On these alternative circuits see Bruel, ‘Sous les pavés l’album’, p. 96.

[5] Présentation de l’album Histoire de Julie qui avait une ombre de garçon (c. 1979/1980), BCU, cote C10124, fo 21.

[6] Originally published in Milan in 1975 as Rosaconfetto, by Turin and Bosnia’s publishing house Edizione dalla parte delle bambine. The book was the first in a series of anti-sexist books for girls by Adela Turin. The series was published in French by Editions des Femmes, and in English by the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative.

[7] Interview by the author with Christian Bruel, 7 October 2016.

[8] Présentation de l’album Histoire de Julie.

[9] Interview with Christian Bruel, 7 October 2016.

[10] Beau and Meynial, ‘Rencontre avec Christian Bruel’, 2003, p. 68.

[11] Interview with Christian Bruel, 7 October 2016.

[12] The classic text on this period is Claire Duchen’s Feminism in France. From May ’68 to Mitterrand (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).

[13] See Thierry Crépin and Thierry Groensteen (eds) On tue à chaque page! La loi de 1949 sur les publications destinées à la jeunesse (Paris, éditions du temps, 1999).

[14] Beau and Meynial, ‘Rencontre avec Christian Bruel’, 2003, p. 67.

[15] Jacqueline de Guillenschmidt, president of the 1949 law commission between 1995 and 1999, suggested that in the 1970s the spirit in which the commission worked was ‘profoundly changed’, and it moved away from the ‘moralising approach’ of the 1950s and 60s. Quoted in Crépin and Groensteen (eds) On tue à chaque page! p. 211.

[16] ‘Entretien avec Christian Bruel’, Revue des livres pour enfants, 242: 2008, pp. 128-30.

[17] Chiara, la bambina che aveva un’ombra-ragazzo (Milan, Edizione dalla parte delle bambine, 1978).

[18] Interview with Christian Bruel, 7 October 2016.

[19] Beau and Meynial, ‘Rencontre avec Christian Bruel’, 2003, p. 68; see also the translations listed in the Clermont-Ferrand Fonds Bruel inventory, available to download here: http://bibliotheque.clermont-universite.fr/fonds-christian-bruel.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Sophie Heywood (February 9, 2017). Julie: the girl with a boy’s shadow. The children's '68. Retrieved July 16, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/mq1o

3 thoughts on “Julie: the girl with a boy’s shadow

  1. Anyone here after viewing Julie Delpy’s Instagram page referencing this book? Sam Sungyieu

  2. Pingback: Liberating Young Children, Tours, Loire Valley, France – More Than Words

  3. Dear Hypotheses blogger,
    We found your article particularly interesting. To increase its visibility so the community can more easily appreciate it, we made it a headline article on the hypotheses.org slider.
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