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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Alex Cousseau and Review of The Brothers Zzli

Alex Cousseau has published over eighty books for children in his native France.

Author photo of Alex Cousseau

His works have been honored with many awards, including the Premio Andersen Prize in 2021 and the Bologna Ragazzi Fiction Award in 2018. The Brothers Zzli is Alex's English-language debut.


His English-language picture book debut, The Brothers Zzli, releases October 24th.


Welcome Alex, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your picture book and your writing.


Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)


I write when I can, since I was a child. Mainly children’s books. Stories that shout me, that shake me up. I write illustrated albums and novels for all ages.


What do you like to do outside by yourself or with your family?


I like to share good times close to home, near the ocean. I like swimming, scuba diving, cooking, and reading good books.


Sounds like a perfect day! What was your inspiration or spark of interest for The Brothers Zzli?

Book cover - three black bears with ruck sacks on a patch of grass.

The starting point is the images of Anne-Lise Boutin, and a questioning about the reception of immigrants. I wanted to tell a light story on this serious subject.


Interesting that this started with illustrations, first. What was the toughest aspect of writing The Brothers Zzli? And what was the most fun?


It was difficult to talk about this subject without giving a lesson. It was fun to imagine a story that could be both light and serious.


You succeeded in being very light-handed and not preachy! Is there anything you want your readers to know about or gain from The Brothers Zzli?


Above all, I want readers to enjoy reading this story, I hope the characters touch them.


You and Anne have imbued the characters with such wry personalities, I think this hope will come true. When you first saw Anne-Lise Boutin’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread - girl sitting alone outside house as her bat friend arrives.

Text © Alex Cousseau, 2023. Image © Anne-Lise Boutin, 2023.


This book was born from the desire to make a book based on Anne-Lise’s images. Upon discovering the first images, I was immediately convinced that it was going to be a beautiful album.


I really like the older, classic feel of the illustrations, especially with your fable-like story. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I have several projects in progress. An adventure novel with takes place in the eighteenth century, several picture books with different illustrators, and maybe a new book with Anne-Lise Boutin - the story of a little girl who teaches sweetness to two angry giants.


These sound intriguing. Good luck with them. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park (anywhere in the world)? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Photo of Brittany coastline - Source: Ekaterina Pokrovsky / shutterstock

There are lots of places I would like to visit in the world, but I think I have found a nice place to live: somewhere at the end of the world, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, in Brittany.

This area is jaw-dropping gorgeous. What a wonderful place to live!


Thank you, Alex for stopping by and sharing your time and thoughts with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.


To find out more about Alex Cousseau, or contact him:


Review of The Brothers Zzli


This poignant and timely book addresses the issues of immigration, friendship, community fear, and acceptance. It's a fascinating modern fable with a delightful old-time feel.


Book cover - three black bears with ruck sacks on a patch of grass.

The Brothers Zzli


Author: Alex Cousseau


Illustrator: Anne-Lise Boutin


Translator: Vineet Lal


Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (2003)


Ages: 6-10


Fiction


Themes:

Immigrants, community, generosity, intolerance, and friendship.


Synopsis:

A moving allegory of immigration and hospitality.


One day, the brothers Zzli come to the doorstep of a little girl named Welcome. Welcome has plenty of room in her big, empty house, and the travelers—who have come from far away—make good pancakes and even better company. But others in the forest find this new family strange, even dangerous. When the bears invite their neighbors to a big party, only Welcome’s friend the bat shows up. Soon after that, a policeman knocks on their door, threatening to destroy the brothers’ beloved beehives. Maybe Welcome and her friends need to find someplace that might accept three bears, a bat, and a girl like her: somewhere to call home at last.


With charming, delightful illustrations reminiscent of vintage children’s classics, The Brothers Zzli invites readers to join a bear family’s search for belonging in a world that views them with suspicion. This poignant story will spark lasting conversations about the impact of prejudice, the struggles of refugees, and the responsibility we have to our neighbors—especially the new ones.


Opening Lines:

My house lies deep in the forest. Under

thick foliage. In the shade of the trees.

Surrounded by brambles. My house

is much too big for a girl like me.

Sometimes I feel bored.


One day, my little bat-friend has an idea: “I have some

friends who are looking for somewhere to live. They’ve

been on the road for some time. They come from far,

far away. You’d enjoy their company. Why don’t you

take them in? Give them a home?”


What I LOVED about this book:

This is such an interesting book on so many levels. First, the illustrations have an old-time, classic feel. Their bold, vibrant blues, yellows, red, and greens beautifully offset the three black bears. Secondly, the text has a fable-like length and feel, but it is told in a first-person narrative by a young girl.

Internal spread - three large black bears face a girl looking out an upper story window of house.

Text © Alex Cousseau, 2023. Image © Anne-Lise Boutin, 2023.


When the girl's bat friend senses she's lonely, it suggests that she take it three bears who have travelled from afar and need a place to live. Although they "look like rocks./ Boulders./ Mountains." she agrees. They introduce themselves as "the four brothers Zzli" and politely settle right in. They eat like there are four bears and definitely snore like four. Because of their responses, she names them - Yes, No, and Maybe.

After dessert, the bears tell the girl the story of their travels. How they fled a fire, faced blizzards, and survived hunger and fear. But before it gets too dour, they also tell her about their funny escapades - Yes's struggle with an umbrella, No swimming with a lily pad hat, and Maybe acting funny after eating blue mushrooms. The brothers follow up their tale with a silly, energetic, acrobatic bout of dish washing; thoroughly entertaining the young girl who hasn't "laughed so much in a long time."

Internal spread - on upper left a bear with ear caught in an umbrella. Bottom left - a bear swimming behind a boat. On right,  a bear with a blue tongue acting silly after taking a bite of a mushroom.

Text © Alex Cousseau, 2023. Image © Anne-Lise Boutin, 2023.


There are rocky moments, when they get into some of her things or the neighbors refuse to come to the bear's party, fearing that soon "all the bears in the world will overrun our beautiful forest." But the girl welcomes the company and joy Yes, No, and Maybe have brought to her life. Unfortunately, even though the brothers' actions are helpful, the neighbors force them to leave. I found it an interesting choice for the police officer to be a tiny beetle. This size disparity, the girl's naive attitude, and the bear's reason for naming the girl 'Welcome' - “Yes,” replies Yes. “Can’t you read? It’s written under your feet." - adds a touch of levity before the unthinkable happens.

Internal spread - on left bear's beehives and reparied swing. On right a tiny police beetle, standin on the "welcome" mat tries to intimidate the bears.

Text © Alex Cousseau, 2023. Image © Anne-Lise Boutin, 2023.


So convinced of their fears, the neighbors destroy part of what they claimed to be protecting. There are a couple of very poignant scenes between the girl and the bears as they each combat the prejudice and suspicions of the neighbors. Fortunately, this is a picture book and it ultimately ends happily with two amazing wordless spreads which will leave readers smiling.


As with many fables/fairytales, it's never explained why the girl lives in a big house all alone. Additionally, while the length of the text and the neighbor's motivations and actions definitely make this a book for an older child, a younger one with the help of a caregiver might enjoy it as well. This book will definitely open the door for many discussions on prejudice, immigration, what it's like to be a refugee, being a guest, friendship, and our responsibilities to as humans to each other. This is a very poignant and needed book with a timeless feel and a gorgeous hopeful ending.


Resources:

Two origami bears

- make your own origami bear house guests.


- if you had to leave your home, and could only take what you could carry in a pack, what would you take?


- why did the neighbors reject the brothers Zzli, even when they showed how helpful they could be? Do you think you could change their minds? Why or why not?


- pair this with Lubna and Pebble, by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, Migrants by Issa Watanabe, and Shelter by Céline Claire, illustrated by Qin Leng.

Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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