Dust off the Panels: My Mommy is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill

Written by Jean Regnaud
Illustrated by Emile Bravo
Fanfare Ponent Mon

Jean is a five year old boy living in France.  He can't remember much about his mother, but that's okay, because she sends him postcards.  He lives with his brother and father and a companion who fills the role of mother for him.  This is the story of a year in his life, filled with fun, misunderstanding, and tragic reality.  Watch as Jean tells his story to you in pictures and words, as we learn all about him and his world.

What was it like to be five years old?  Hard to remember, right?  Regnaud and Bravo combine to tell this story of the innocence of a child and what happens when adults try to be kind by withholding the truth.  It's a touching story, well crafted and well illustrated that perfectly tells an arc of the character Jean's life, as he grows up over the course of a year and learns all too quickly that parents can lie.

What makes this book work so well is the fact that at ever turn, Regnaud shows just how often a child is faced with things they cannot understand and instead of trying to help them, we as adults pass the buck with clever lies or inventions.  It's all in the name of protecting them, but when the deceit is discovered, that child's world is changed forever.

I remember when I first figured out my parents could and did lie to me.  It changed my life.  Secretly, I stopped trusting everything they told me, and started questioning the world around me.  It's clear that little Jean's life is changed, too, once he comes to that same conclusion.  There's a lot of power and emotion charged up as the book progresses and if I have one minor complaint, it's that there's not a lot of space given to seeing that energy released.  Once we get to the big reveal, we only have a few pages left to deal with it.

The story itself, though, is excellent.  We never for a moment go outside the viewpoint of Jean.  We may sometimes be able to understand things better than he does, but we aren't showing things he can't see.  The flow of the book is perfect, going from adventure to adventure, weaving the main plot of the story in and out of Jean's adventures as naturally as Jean himself would perceive them.  Clever interludes are added that embellish a bit on Jean's ideas, but never take away from them.

Regnaud does a great job of making this story work, because it could easily devolve into childishness, nostalgia, or melodrama, but it never does.  I'm always wary of books with protagonists so young for those reasons, but here it was not a problem.  This is just a well crafted story of growing up far too early and dealing with circumstances that are tragic for a person of any age, let alone a kid barely out of potty training.

Part of what makes this book work so well is Bravo's art style.  The book's illustrations remind me of a children's book, like H.A. Ray or maybe Babar is a more relevant comparison, since the book is French in origin.  It fits the tone of the work perfectly, and there are plenty of little visual touches that enhance the text. I was particularly fond of the non-verbal word bubbles, where images would be crossed out or used in place of an actual word.  I don't know if that came from Regnaud or Bravo, but it's a great idea.

My Mommy is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill is a great book that was very popular among my friends when it came out, and I see why.  If you happen along this one in your travels and you like coming of age stories, definitely grab it.  It's well worth dusting off the panels for.