France’s ‘Little Nicolas’ illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempe dies aged 89

‘Le Petit Nicolas’ depicted an idealised vision of childhood in 1950s France and became an international best-seller

Jean-Jacques Sempe, who illustrated the much-loved “Little Nicolas” series of French children’s books, has died aged 89, his biographer told AFP on Thursday.

As well as his work on “Le Petit Nicolas”, an idealised vision of childhood in 1950s France which became an international best-seller, Sempe also illustrated more New Yorker magazine covers than any other artist.

Sempe, who originally wanted to be a jazz pianist and had a difficult childhood, dropped out of school aged 14 before lying about his age to join the army.

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While working at a press agency, he befriended cartooning legend Rene Goscinny of “Asterix” fame and together in 1959 they invented “Little Nicolas”.

Today the books are international best-sellers with more than 15 million copies sold in 45 countries, and have been adapted into a popular film and cartoon series.

It was only in 1978 when he was hired by The New Yorker that he found sustainable success. “I was almost 50 and for the first time in my life, I existed! I had finally found my family,” he said.

Sempe was born near Bordeaux in the village of Pessac in 1932, the illegitimate son of an affair his mother had with her boss.

“Come closer, I’ll slap you so hard the wall will slap you back,” he remembered her telling him.

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“You don’t know who you are, what you’re built on,” he later said.

But the kindness that Sempe showed his subjects was in stark contrast to the misery of his own upbringing.

“You try to sort things out, to make your memories prettier. But you never get over it.”

The artist said he could spend as long as three weeks getting a single drawing right and that he was capable of anything — “not bathing, not sleeping” — to finish work on time.

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