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Jean-Jacques Sempé Dies: ‘Little Nicholas’ Creator & Illustrator Was 89

Jean-Jacques Sempé Dies: ‘Little Nicholas’ Creator & Illustrator Was 89

Jean-Jacques Sempé, the French cartoonist best known for the Le Petit Nicolas (Little Nicholas) children’s books, died Thursday. He was 89.

The mischievous schoolboy who is constantly getting into scrapes in and out of school but somehow always comes out on top was inspired by Sempé’s own childhood memories.

Sempé’s collaborations on the series with late Asterix co-creator René Goscinny sold millions of copies worldwide and have been adapted to the big screen on numerous occasions, especially in France.

The latest production inspired by the works, Amandine Fredon and Benjamin Massoubre’s Little Nicholas – Happy as Can Be won the top prize at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in June.

Sempé’s wife Martine Gossieaux Sempé told French news agency Agence France Press that her husband died on August 11.

Born on  August 17, 1932, in the town of Pessac just outside of Bordeaux, Sempé left formal education at the age of 14 after his schooling was disrupted by World War Two. He then tried his hand at various jobs including delivery boy, toothpaste sales and wine merchant.

In 1950, he started submitting illustrations to the regional newspaper Sud Ouest, signing them under the pseudonym of DRO, a play on the English word ‘draw’.

Shortly afterwards, a stint in the army took Sempé to Paris. He fell in love with the city and never left, living for most of the rest of his life in the sixth arrondissement neighbourhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

In 1953, he met Goscinny in the offices of the Paris branch of Belgian news agency World Press and their subsequent friendship would shape his career.

At that point, Sempé had already created the character of Little Nicholas for the World Press publication Le Moustique. When World Press asked Sempé to expand the character to a full-length comic book strip, he called on his friend Goscinny to write the storyline.

From 1955 onwards, the pair collaborated on a series of Little Nicholas comic strip works. They abandoned the format in 1959 after parting company with World Press and Le Moustique and then hit on the formula of books with illustrations throughout.

The books were regarded as ground-breaking at the time for the way they told the story from a child’s point of view.

Key titles include ‘Young Nicholas’ (‘Le Petit Nicolas’), ‘Nicholas Again’ (‘Les Récrés Du Petit Nicolas’), ‘Nicholas on Holiday’ (‘Les Vacances Du Petit Nicolas’) and ‘Nicholas And the Gang’ (‘Le Petit Nicolas Et Les Copains’)

Aside from Little Nicholas–Happy as Can Be, other films inspired by the works have included Julien Rappeneau’s Little Nicholas’s Treasure and Laurent Tirard’s Nicholas On Holiday.

Later illustrated works included ‘Raoul Taburin’ about a cycling shop owner harbouring a terrible secret that he does not know how to ride a bicycle. Pierre Godeau adapted the tale to the big screen in 2018 with Benoit Poelvoorde in the titular role

Sempé also gained international recognition for his 101 cover designs for the New Yorker magazine from the late 1970s onwards, in which he illustrated New York with the same love and detail that he used to capture his beloved Paris.


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