Coco Chanel has been the fascinating, and sometimes controversial, subject of many, many biographies, several of which I have read. However, none has charmed me quite the way Different Like Coco has. This delightful slim book by Elizabeth Matthews is written for the 5 – 9 group. Now, I don’t mean the fun-loving cocktail ladies, who start sipping at 5:00 PM and finally get to dinner at 9:00. No, this group is the age-group of 5 – 9, meaning the “little” ones. Yes, this is a children’s book, a small biography of Coco Chanel, with expressive illustrations, and text which strikes a good balance between simplicity and sophistication.
Different Like Coco was published in 2007 by Candlewick Press, a children’s book publisher located in Massachusetts. I became acquainted with the newly-minted book when I read a review of it in The Wall Street Journal, by Meghan Cox Gurdon. Being a “pushover” for all things about the fashion and creative sense of Coco Chanel, I ordered my own copy from Amazon. (Little did I ever imagine that 6 years later, I would have my own little granddaughter who might just hear this book read to her – oh, who knows how many times?)
On one level, the book is purely biographical, emphasizing Chanel’s childhood spent in poverty – which she did not allow to define her. The later part of her childhood was spent in a convent, and it was there where she learned to sew.
Those sewing skills were the “mechanical” ticket to her success, while her creativity, her determination, her hard work and her daring flounting of convention set her apart from others of her age.
The story emphasizes these characteristics for the young readers of this book, which makes it more than a biography. Indeed, these characteristics are treated as inspirational, which they certainly can be to children.
Some of the more controversial aspects of Chanel’s life are handled discreetly, so that the opening of her first shop and the creation of the classic cardigan jacket (made from one of her lover’s sweaters) are seamless chapters in her life story.
For the adult reader of this sweet book, there are two features which I guarantee will be read again and again. One is the “Timeline” which is in the back of the book (accompanied by a bibliography, too). All the important dates of Chanel’s life are succinctly listed, including the development of her perfume Chanel No. 5 in 1921; the afore-mentioned creation of her signature jacket, also in 1921, and her debut of the “little black dress” in 1926.
The other compelling aspect of this book is one of pure brilliance from a design point of view: the lining pages feature a “running commentary” of some of Chanel’s famous and less-known quotes.
A sampling of her quotes about fashion:
“Fashion is made to become unfashionable.”
“A fashion that does not reach the streets is not a fashion.”
“Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions.”
And some of her quotes about life:
“There are people who have money and people who are rich.”
“Luxury must be comfortable; otherwise it is not luxury.”
“How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.”
And I so appreciate that this quote is placed centermost: “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
I cannot close this post without a special word about the author, Elizabeth Matthews. The book jacket has this short statement about her and her motivation to write this book:
Thank you, Elizabeth Matthews, for making the life story of Coco Chanel an inspiring and almost magical tale for 5 to 9-ers of every age!