I always look forward to Enchanted Lion’s picture book releases, and at the end of May they released a book originally published in France in 2011, Charlotte Moundlic’s The Bathing Costume: Or The Worst Vacation of My Life, illustrated by Olivier Tallec. There is much to be said for this picture book import, translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick: It’s funny. It’s touching without being cloying. Its tone is just right, and the characters nearly leap off the page in all their authenticity.
You could safely call the book’s protagonist, Ronnie (who is nearly 8 years old), a mama’s boy, as they say. His mother doesn’t work and spends a lot of time with her two boys, but for the first time this summer Ronnie is being sent away to his grandparents’ home in France where they live, while his brother hops over to England to visit a friend. Ronnie’s not too thrilled, nor is he feeling very brave, since “I’m not used to being without her.” (His mother wipes a tear from her eye, too.)
After this introduction to Ronnie, the book is divided into days—Day One to Day Seven of his vacation, to be exact. Just when Ronnie thought it couldn’t get any worse than being away from his mother, he finds out that his cousins will be visiting as well. Unfortunately, “I’m the butt of all their jokes,” he adds.
Ronnie, who agrees to write his mother a letter, bends the truth a bit. Even though his cousins, for one, short-sheeted his bed the day prior, he writes to her how beautiful it is there. “That will be it for today. I prefer not to think too much about her since it makes me a little sad. I’ll see what tomorrow’s like.”
Things start to turn around when Ronnie gains a bit of respect from his older cousins, once he devises a plan for avoiding their grandmother’s spider-filled shower (as well as actual bathing). His summer also starts to look up when he discovers the lax rules at his summer home (just when you start to wonder if his loving, well-meaning mother is a bit of a helicopter parent). Biking without a helmet! Creating a stunt course for said bike! Riding cramped in the back of Grandma’s car to the nearby pool! (It’s here that Grandpa adds that “it would be best not to mention anything to Mama.”)
The real challenge is the 10-foot diving board at the pool, not to mention learning not to be so scared of Grandpa, whom you suspect has a very different parenting style from Ronnie’s mother. Ronnie is a rising third grader who hasn’t lost any baby teeth, but as the summer progresses, a tooth actually comes lose, all serving as a lovely metaphor for his own loosening-up, his discoveries of freedom and summer of relaxed restrictions.
And the actual scenes at the pool? They are a hoot. Moundlic expertly captures the awkward vulnerability of young children such as Ronnie. Not only is he terrified of the diving board, but he also has to wear his older brother’s suit, which his grandmother calls the “bathing costume” and which is too big for Ronnie. “Suddenly the swimming pool was transformed into my worst nightmare.” (It’s at this point that his sorrow over the absence of his mother turns to outright anger.) Even funnier is his grandmother’s attempt to make the suit fit by adding an elastic band to it, which makes it look an awful lot like a diaper.
Illustrator Olivier Tallec nails the boy’s gawkiness, too. His delicate watercolors put shadow and color to clever use to set a tone and convey a mood. He also has fun with perspective during the final diving scene (which I simply can’t tell you about and ruin for you), showing the boy from nearly every side on the diving board, high up in the air and with legs trembling.
And how does his letter to his mother end? Well, he crumples the letter up, but if he were to write anything, he decides that he’d tell her he’d like the exact same vacation next year, thanks very much.
It’s a coming-of-age story with heart and truth and lots of humor. Don’t miss it.
THE BATHING COSTUME. First American edition published in 2013 by Enchanted Lion Books, Brooklyn. Translation copyright © 2012 by Claudia Zoe Bedrick. Illustration used with permission of the publisher.Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.