The DFF Book Club

Introduce your children to a little French village of yesteryear with this month’s feature book. The setting of Crictor is reminiscent of Bemelmans’ Madeleine but with better illustrations.

Crictor by Tomi Ungerer

My copy of Crictor by Tomi Ungerer is battered, and I didn’t know its value when I included it in a pile of books for which I paid $2, but ever since I brought it home, we’ve read it again and again. This award-winning book from the 50s is all about a pet snake.

And a French lady. Ah, I love these foreign settings. They provide our children with a window into a world so unlike our own: a little village, pointy roofs, different uniforms and a name like “Madame Louise Bodot”. I bring out my French accent when reading this book aloud: “M’DAHM Bo-DOH”. Bliss.

Madame Bodot apparently lives alone, and her only son is in Africa studying reptiles. (The Africa connection — I love it already!)

Crictor by Tomi Ungerer
One morning the mailman brought her a peculiar O-shaped box.

If you received a snake in the post, how would you react? Very like Madame Bodot, I suspect. But she’s also a sensible woman, and after she calmed down, she did a little research and discovered her new snake was not poisonous.

It’s a boa constrictor, so Madame Bodot calls her animal Crictor. (I find it difficult to get past the fact that boa constrictors do not come from Africa, but this book is otherwise so charming that somehow I manage to thrust my indignation aside.)

Crictor by Tomi Ungerer
Madame Bodot mothered her new pet, feeding it bottles of milk.

Adults can see how absurd this image is, but Ungerer knows children. And children like to mother all sorts of babies — teddies, rabbits, little dolls, little cars. Mine have mothered nuts and bolts, toothbrushes and cutlery!

So to a child, Madame Bodot is doing something very natural. She is feeding her new pet. She pampers it. So it thrives.

Crictor by Tomi Ungerer
I love this image of Madame Bodot turning Crictor into a measuring stick. Very clever.

Crictor goes everywhere with his mistress. And Madame Bodot is a teacher, so the snake goes to class, sitting very nicely at a little desk.

Crictor by Tomi Ungerer
Soon Crictor learned to shape the alphabet in his own way.

So in a schoolroom setting, Ungerer can insert some blatant instruction — letters and numbers as shaped by the snake. (Interestingly, the Letter N is for “nothing” which threw off my pre-school audience!) This sort of detour would distract from a lesser story, but it’s to the book’s credit that it can recover from its little lesson with the audience still fully engaged.

If you aren’t in love with Crictor yet, we also get to see ways in which he likes to play with little children. In a nice way, of course.

Crictor by Tomi Ungerer
With little boys.

Crictor by Tomi Ungerer
And little girls too.

Crictor has got to be the nicest snake I know. And yet, not everyone in this book is nice. There’s a baddie — clearly stereotyped — and he targets Madame Bodot’s apartment.

Crictor by Tomi Ungerer

Well, I’m not going to spoil the story for you. Because although you can guess what happens, you’ll want to see it for yourself, I’m sure.

The good news about this month’s DFF Book Club feature is that Crictor is still in print! It’s available in paperback for A$7 and hardback for A$17. Go get it. You won’t mind reading it twenty times a week, I promise.