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Big news for small readers

A French national daily newspaper aimed at children is one of only two in the world. Jane Marshall reports for the grown-ups

In the Paris newsroom of Mon Quotidien a reporter is watching a football match on video. Others are on the phone or writing stories on computers. Bulletin boards, schedules and posters line the walls. Shelves hold French and foreign newspapers and a comprehensive range of reference books. Back numbers hang from the ceiling.

It is a typical newspaper office. But a closer look reveals a national daily with a difference. Alongside the dictionaries and atlases are children's encyclopedias, textbooks covering France's national curriculum, and other books more often seen in a sub-teenager's bedroom. Headings pinned to noticeboards include children of the world, cinema, science and school life.

Mon Quotidien is a national daily paper for children - one of only two in the world (the other is Japanese). It has just celebrated its second birthday, and circulation is rising. Its readership straddles the end of primary school and the start of lower secondary.

Editor Francois Dufour is one of three friends who started Play Bac, a company that introduced the highly successful series of "Incollables" - quizzes covering the school curriculum, now sold internationally and known in Britain as Brainbox. This venture provided the capital to start Mon Quotidien.

Francois Dufour says: "Before the launch we spent two years going into classrooms and consulting children. We did 17 dummy issues, always testing with different children, asking them 'would you read this? or that?' I don't want to offer adult news. I want to select topics children want to read about."

So politics is out, unless it's a new president or an important election. Typical stories are about children in France or abroad, the environment, scientific discoveries, animals, sport, music, cinema, space or school. More serious items might include Aids or Rwanda, and the paper does not avoid sensitive stories, such as the recent Dutroux paedophile murders. "We print everything - no secrets, no cover-up," says Francois Dufour, although the journalists take care not to sensationalise.

The eight-page tabloid is full of colour, with several illustrations - photos, maps, cartoons - on each page. Stories are kept short. Favourite sections tend to be the single-paragraph regulars - "Notes" (which awards 2020 for successes or achievers, or 020 for failures and bad deeds), "Question", for which readers give their opinions on a topical issue, and the "Et Aussi" news briefs.

Each day's lead news item has a related background feature that fits in with a school subject such as history, science or civics. A recent story concerned Lucie Aubrac, an 85-year-old former member of the French Resistance, who talks to schools about her experiences. A linked item covered the German occupation of France, giving main events and dates with a map.

Lighter items, to which readers contribute, include reviews of books, records, films and video as well as interviews and recipes. Supplements mark events such as "Press in Schools" week or the Comic Strip festival, or explain topical issues.

On Wednesdays, Sundays and in school holidays, readers are invited to the morning editorial conference to help choose material for the next issue. One recent Wednesday, Eleonore Malnou, almost 11, was advising on such items as an abandoned space probe, two girls going to Africa to investigate Aids, protests in Nantes over teacher job cuts, an oak-planting scheme and the diet of Britain's Neanderthal man.

Staff journalists have had to adapt to writing in a simple style. A sign on the wall reminds them: "Our paper is for 10 to 13-year-olds. You must be clear for children of 10 years."

Difficult words or grammar are marked in the text and explained at the bottom of the page. To ensure child-friendly language and content, primary school teacher Bernard Paret comes in every evening to check the stories. He says: "Language has a hier-archy. You can't use the same images for children as for adults - they haven't developed the capacity. When discussing the sheep clone, how do you explain what a gene is?" Bernard Paret believes Mon Quotidien is suitable for foreign children learning French at the higher end of the age range.

Not only youngsters enjoy reading the paper. A readership survey showed that as well as 170,000 children, 50,000 parents read it - of whom eight out of 10 said it was their only national daily newspaper.

Mon Quotidien is available from 21 rue du Petit-Musc, 75004 Paris; published daily Tuesday to Saturday, annual subscription outside France 830 francs

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