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Le Petit Prince manuscript travels from US to France for first time

The work, which was intended to help American and French children forget about the hardships of the war, will be displayed in Paris. We look at its popularity, themed-bookstores and amusement parks

Le Petit Prince is one of the most read and translated book in the world, being French people's favourite book in 2020. Pic: SeyooArt / Shutterstock

Part of the Le Petit Prince manuscript is coming to France this month for the first time in its history, despite the fact that it was written by a French author and occupies a special place within French culture.   

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris will feature 35 of the 141 pages of the original text – written in 1943 – from February 17 to June 26 along with 600 other items in an exhibition centred around the life of its author, the pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 

It is the first time that such a large section of the manuscript has been featured outside of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, where it has been on display since 1968, a Musée des Arts Décoratifs’ spokeswoman told The Connexion. 

One sheet of the manuscript has, however, previously been exhibited for several days in Japan, she added.

Le Petit Prince is considered the most read and translated French book in the world. It is taught within French elementary schools and has inspired the names of streets and schools across the country. 

Le Petit Prince was listed as French people’s joint favourite book in 2020, tied with La Peste by Albert Camus, according to the World Book Day event organised by the Unesco. 

We consider why the original text has not come to France sooner, and dive into its treasured place within French society.  

‘This is all I have’

Mr Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900 in Paris from an aristocratic family. He spent his childhood until age 10 in the 18th century château of Saint-Maurice-de-Rémens, in the Ain department. 

Read more: Petit Prince writer’s château bought by French region

He started taking flight lessons while enlisting for the Army and joined Aeropostale, France’s pioneering aviation company from 1918 to 1933. He served as a captain during World War Two.

Mr Saint-Exupéry arrived in New York from occupied France on December 31, 1940 after a two-day sailing trip on the SS Siboney, with the intention of persuading the US to enter the conflict against Nazi Germany quickly. 

The protagonist of Le Petit Prince was first drawn on a tablecloth in New York before the story was developed in Northport outside New York, according to the website France-Amerique

However, some historians claim several drafts of the book were written in France, Le Figaro reports.

Le Petit Prince was published in 1943 in New York then translated in French in 1946 by the publishing company Gallimard. 

The book was meant to be a Christmas tale which would help American and French children to forget about the hardships of the war.

“When the book was first published, it did well, spending about a week on the New York Times’ best-seller list, but it was not a blockbuster,” said the cultural service of the French embassy in a video for an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in 2014, adding other books in Mr Saint-Exupéry’s bibliography spent much longer time on the list.

The original unsigned manuscript was acquired by the Morgan Library and Museum in 1968 after Mr Saint-Exupéry left a paper bag at his friend Silvia Hamilton’s door as he was leaving the United States to rejoin the war effort as a reconnaissance pilot. 

"I'd like to give you something splendid," he said, "but this is all I have," he was reported to have said. In the bag was Le Petit Prince manuscript and selected drawings.

Mr Saint-Exupery took part in regular flights in the Mediterranean region whether from Northern Africa, Italy or France. 

He took his final flight on July 31, 1944 and disappeared from radar screens, most probably after his plane was hit by a German fighter plane although the exact reason of his death remains unknown.

He was declared ‘Mort pour la France’, an honor awarded to people who died during a conflict, usually in service to the country in 1948.

Parts of his planes were found in the Mediterranean sea in 2003.

Read more: Saint-Exupéry and ‘mystery American’ letters sold in Paris

From schools to themed-shops and amusement parks

Over the years, Le Petit Prince became immensely popular in France, where the public’s enthusiasm has produced countless spin-offs and themed attractions.

Le Petit Prince is very often included in French elementary school reading lists and taught between the ages of six and 10. Its story is also often performed by classes at their end-of-year shows.  

“It is a book with various levels of understanding that can be very useful for kids,” said a spokeswoman from the Longchamp elementary school in Paris, adding she chose to let her own children read it before Year 2. 

The passage where Le Petit Prince meets a fox and asks him to ‘draw [him] a sheep’ was the subject of a song by popular Canadian-French singer Mylène Farmer.

Many elementary schools across the country have been named after Le Petit Prince, sometimes located on streets named after Mr Saint-Exupéry. 

These Petit Prince-inspired locations have extended to a themed shop in Paris and an amusement park in Alsace.

Le Parc du Petit Prince opened in 2014 and was created by Jerome Giacomoni and Matthieu Goby, two inflatable balloon engineers passionate about Mr Saint-Exupéry’s life and work.

Visitors to the park are lifted 150 metres above the ground in helium balloons as part of 34 attractions centered around the story of Le Petit Prince. The park welcomes 200,000 visitors per year, a spokesperson told The Connexion. 

Le Petit Prince also has its own foundation, created in 1991 with a mission to embellish children’s classrooms with drawings or books, among other activities. 

In 2020, the Fondation Antoine de Saint-Exupéry chose June 29 – Mr Saint-Exupéry’s birthday – to be Le Petit Prince’s celebration day, created in a bid to foster inspiration, promote peace to combat “increasing crises and tensions around the world.”

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