A Funny Sort of Minister
A Funny Sort of Minister
“What do you think?” Miss Charlotte asked.
Gustave-Aurèle’s mouth was wide open. He had just read the new policy his friend had written. It was totally outrageous, one hundred percent unthinkable, and…utterly wonderful!
Her policy stated that children must absolutely learn how to blow bubbles with their chewing gum before the end of Year 7. It was equally important to learn how to climb huge trees, to build your own kite, to lose yourself in funny or terrifying books, to raise exotic animals and to invent extravagant dishes…
Miss Charlotte also mentioned the need to do sums and write correctly, but she did not spend much time on that bit. “Happy children learn quicker and better,” she simply said.
The elderly and quirky Miss Charlotte is on a train voyage when she accidentally switches bags with the Prime Minister, Roger Rarejoy. Following the trail to his official residence, she makes friends with his bored, repressed son Gustave-Aurèle, and together they learn of the PM’s plan to introduce a restrictive and dull new education policy. Racing to head off his planned announcement, Miss Charlotte stands in for the PM at a new car unveiling, then upstages him by giving a speech about her preferred child-friendly curriculum. Father and son both realize the fun that has been missing from their lives, but Miss Charlotte disappears before they can thank her.
Originally published in French in 2001 as Un drôle de ministre, A Funny Sort of Minister is the fourth in a series of books about Miss Charlotte, a bizarre character in an enormous hat and long dress who appears at just the right time and place to ally herself with kids battling their elders’ bureaucratic seriousness, alternately weaseling her way into impersonating a teacher, a librarian, a soccer coach, and here a government minister. Now translated for the UK market with new illustrations by Tony Ross, the books are seeking a new audience beyond Québec where a film based on the first book, La mystérieuse Mademoiselle C, won several Genie Awards and spawned a sequel. Demers, an author, journalist, publisher, and television host, has based her career on an unflagging faith in the power of childhood and the transformative power of both good books and good fun in their lives.
As with the French originals, the text is relatively simple, even as it follows a twisting plot sprinkled with over-the-top characters, hilarious encounters, and a light touch of sentimentality that the totally original Miss Charlotte always fosters in the children and adults she meets. A Funny Sort of Minister is a send-up of political pomposity, just as its predecessors skewered test-obsessed teachers and literacy-challenged small-town mayors, but written in a gentle manner, mirroring its young readers’ own innocent complaints about the overbearing adults in their lives. The connection Miss Charlotte forges with the repressed youngsters she meets is as infectious as her bizarre appearance and habits (she continually talks to her pet rock Gertrude).
As a translation, though, this edition doesn’t always hit the heights of lyrical silliness as the original. On occasion, the language can come across as far more stilted, and the transition from a story told in the literary present to the simple past can occasionally seem more awkward than it should. The choice to Anglicize some of Demers’ satirical character names while leaving others untouched is hard to fathom. Why would PM Roger Rabajoie become Roger Rarejoy while his son is still Gustave-Aurèle? The towns the PM visits on his tour keep their French names, like Saint-Citron and Saint-Anatole, yet clearly Saint-Mealymouth was not in the original. Speaking of which, the choice to keep town names starting with “saint” with a hyphen might seem to British readers to place the story in rural France, yet having a Prime Minister would more likely evoke a UK setting (the convenient and ubiquitous train travel would even exclude Canada!). British spellings like “tyre” and usages like “mobile” for cellphone are, of course, understandable but add to what would surely be a confusing sense of place for Canadian readers. And that’s one of the tragedies of translation—the geographic and linguistic character is often compromised.
In the end, A Funny Sort of Minister is a book that deserved to be shared with an English-speaking audience, and Demers is a voice that deserves to be heard. The gentle and child-friendly satire of adult obsessions over education policy and political machinations appeals to a wide audience and makes this book an excellent read-aloud for teachers, librarians, and parents who can stand to see themselves mocked.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and Vice-Chair of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations-Fédération canadienne des associations de bibliothèques.