French children’s book illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempe poses next to a poster presenting an exhibition dedicated to the ‘Petit Nicolas’ illustrated children’s books series in Paris June 18, 2014. — AFP pic
PARIS, Aug 12 — 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.
“The cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempe died peacefully (Thursday) evening, August 11 (2022), in his 89th year, at his holiday residence, surrounded by his wife and his close friends,” said Marc Lecarpentier, his biographer and friend, in a statement to AFP.
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.
Army life didn’t agree with him, however, and he began selling drawings to Parisian newspapers and while working at a press agency befriended cartooning legend Rene Goscinny of “Asterix” fame.
Together in 1959 they invented Little Nicolas.
“The Nicolas stories were a way to revisit the misery I endured while growing up while making sure everything came out just fine,” Sempe said in 2018.
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.
But in 1959 they went largely unnoticed, and he continued to sell drawings to newspapers to make ends meet, an early career he described as “horrible”.
It was only in 1978 when he was hired by The New Yoker 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. — AFP