Most books for six to eight year olds lack depth, since they can't be very long. But Dominique de Saint Mars has been working on Ainsi Va La Vie
since 1990, and she's now written nearly a hundred of them. Even though each individual book is only forty pages, that adds up to about 4000 pages in total, and the series as a whole is as complex as many adult novels.
So, here, Lili has met up with cousin Léa, and she immediately sees that something is very wrong. (Max, with typical male emotional intelligence, doesn't notice a thing). They go out in the garden, and Léa tells Lili the whole dreadful story. Her father, Uncle Jeannot, is officially in China working as a trainer for the Chinese table-tennis team. But Léa has found out that this isn't true. He's had problems with alcohol for a long time. It looked like he'd got over them, and, in Emilie n'aime pas quand sa mère boit trop
, he even helped Emilie's mom with her drinking problem and became her sponsor at AA. But a few months ago he started drinking again. He caused a serious accident, and he's been jailed for a year.
Léa is distraught, both that he could do such a bad thing and, even more, that he could then cold-bloodedly lie to her. "He doesn't care about me!" she says bitterly. Lili tells her she's seen this kind of thing before. In Le père de Max et Lili est au chômage
, it was ages before her father would admit he'd lost his job. Sometimes, adults lie to protect you, or at least think they do. She tells Léa should should give her father a chance, but Léa's having none of it. "It's up to him to take the first step!" she snarls.
Lili passes on the news to Max that evening. Max is at first unwilling to believe it, but gradually admits it must be true. He's angry and then thoughtful. "How old do you need to be to get a helicopter pilot's license?" he asks. You can see his fantasies in the thought bubble. But Lili, who's as practical as ever, knows that what they really need is more information. The father of one of her classmates is a prison warden. She cleverly arranges for him to turn up next week to do a show-and-tell. Simultaneously, she contacts one of her other cousins. The resourceful Victor was able to get a mail to Santa Claus in Max et Lili fêtent Noël en famille
. Probably he can find out which prison Uncle Jeannot is in?
Both of Lili's plans work out perfectly. The visit from the prison warden is very informative. It turns out that prisoners aren't kept chained and shackled. They're treated humanely and allowed to watch TV. They can even receive family visits! Some of the more right-wing kids think this is disgustingly soft treatment, but Lili, who's already internalised her parents' liberal values, points out that not all prisoners are bad people. Some of them may even be innocent - the justice system is not infallible. And it's important that they should be able to reintegrate into society when they're released. There's a handy footnote pointing you to the appendix, in case the terminology is too hard to follow.
Meanwhile, Victor's done his job and gives Lili the address she requested. That evening, a fake postcard from China arrives. "Oh, how nice!" says Lili's mom brightly. "Mail from Uncle Jeannot!" Lili and Max give her dark looks, and display a total lack of interest. Mom and Dad wonder if they haven't figured it out. "Maybe we should tell them the truth?" says Mom. "After all, honesty is usually the best policy." But Lili's three jumps ahead of her, and is already composing her letter. It's a tough one. "Your daughter Léa loves you very much," she concludes. "You ought to write to her and tell her what's really happening."
It all works out! The truth will indeed set you free, and once everyone can talk about it things do get better. Léa's family arrange to visit Jeannot in prison and take Max and Lili with them. The reunion scene is really good. Tears are shed all round, and I must admit I had to choke back a few myself. Léa, who's just been goofing off at school for the last few months, promises she'll try harder, and sounds like she means it.
"You fixed all this, didn't you?" she asks on the way out. Lili's worried she's gone too far - not everyone appreciates quite this level of interference in their private life, and she'd have preferred to have done good by stealth. But she admits it, and Léa, thank God, is grateful rather than furious. Lili goes home and brings Mom and Dad up to date.
"Right," she says, and looks them in the eye. "If you're ever put in prison, you're telling me immediately. Okay?"
"Uh, yeah," say the flummoxed parents.