Childhood gets uncensored under the pen of French cartoonist Riad Sattouf. Whether taking on his own fraught transnational youth or reporting on tweens and teens in contemporary France, as he does in his forthcoming graphic novel Esther’s Notebooks (Pantheon, Jan. 2023), his comics find a way inside the funny, touching, and often profane society of kids—telling what he calls “stories about childhood that are not for children.”

Sattouf, 44, prefers to keep the camera off on the Paris side of a conversation via Zoom. “I don’t have my makeup on,” he jokes. It’s a bit of a nod to the vanity with which he caricatures his childhood in his best-known work, the acclaimed graphic memoir series The Arab of the Future, winner of the 2015 Angoulême Prize and the 2016 L.A. Times Book Prize.

The first volume opens in 1980 with a miniature self-portrait of a golden-haired, two-year-old Sattouf labeled “perfect,” with “lips made for suckling.” Sattouf was born in France, his mother a native of Brittany who met his Sunni-Syrian father when the pair were university students at the Sorbonne. The family (two younger brothers come along) moved first to Libya, then Syria, where Sattouf spent most of his early childhood.

His memoirs capture a sweet sense of wonder, small joys discovered amid deprivation, with startling occasions of violence. Teachers smack students with rods across their palms, peers bully Sattouf, and in third grade, he is forced by his father into a painful circumcision ceremony conducted by village elders. By volume four, Sattouf’s in his teens in the 1990s and has moved back to France with his mother. His parents are divorcing, and he anxiously starts high school in her provincial hometown.

Sattouf went on to study animation at Gobelins in Paris, then pivoted to drawing comics. “When I found out you could draw your own,” he says, “it was like someone told me ‘You could be a god.’ ” In the rebellious phase of his late teens, his stylings were in reaction to his conservative religious father—Sattouf admits he worshipped the hyper-raunchy Robert Crumb. Then on staff at Charlie Hebdo from 2004 to 2014, he began the arch observational “The Secret Life of Youth” series, drawing scenes of teen street life encounters, which were collected as a book by the alternative press L’Association (it has not yet been published in English). But it was The Arab of the Future’s nuanced yet accessible storytelling that launched the cartoonist into commercial as well as broader critical success.

Fans of Sattouf’s memoirs might at first find themselves surprised by the turn in Esther’s Notebooks, which studies a more conventional childhood—a portrait that could be of any ordinary little girl down the block. The collection of one-page comic strips was first serialized in the weekly magazine L’Obs, and features a cheeky tween Parisian girl.

The spark for the series came innocuously at a dinner party, where a gregarious nine-year-old girl named Esther tagged along with her parents, friends of Sattouf. “It was like meeting a spy,” he says. She “told these tough stories about how violent the boys were, what the girls really thought of the boys—all the trash talk.”

Each comic is based on one week in Esther’s life. Sattouf calls her up, then transcribes, edits, and draws as comics whatever she deems newsworthy enough to rattle off that week. They’re like comics dispatches from the front of tweendom.

Sattouf documents Esther’s small-time family dramas (she adores her father and despises her older brother), schoolyard politics, off-color observations on race and class, and how she mispronounces her way through naive imaginings of global events—all with the same insouciance. (Esther’s real-life parents gave their blessing to the endeavor.) According to Pantheon, the Esther’s Notebooks volumes are global bestsellers with more than 900,000 copies sold. They’ve been translated into eight languages.

While Esther immediately shows off to Sattouf her fluency in profanity, what’s more eye-opening is how swiftly her cutely banal schoolgirl chatter can shift into tales of casual schoolyard violence and sexism. She pronounces that the secret to success is being “blonde and bendy,” and ranks presidential candidates based on looks (though, Sattouf says, he thinks adults vote with the same shallowness). But while Esther often reminds the reader she’s pretty and popular, she still faces snubs, routine catcalls, and unprovoked slaps.

Sattouf says he found himself “surprised that violence exists in these French private schools, as soon as the teachers weren’t looking, just as it did in my village school in Syria.” In more somber sections, Esther confronts her own racism (and tries earnestly to change), as well as weighty issues like mortality (when the father of a friend dies) and anxiety about terrorism (her school holds disorganized drills). Her parents limit media, so when the timeline of the series collides with major world events, Sattouf gives Esther the stage to relay whatever confused versions she’s picked up on.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre occurred in 2015, just a year after Sattouf left his post at the paper, and despite his personal connection, he runs Esther’s report of that week without editorial overlay. She muses over a classroom debate about free expression—but spends equal panel space on a spat with a friend (who returns their prized “BFF necklace”). Whether the point is that tragedies great and small loom large in children’s lives, or that youthful interpretations of political events can get at essential truths, is open to interpretation. On the next page, Esther’s daily life moves along.

Sattouf’s editor at Pantheon is the inimitable Chip Kidd, who calls him “an A-list artist at the top of his game” and Esther’s Notebooks “eye-opening and journalistic.” Noting that “it doesn’t feel invasive—it feels revelatory,” he says he found himself “amazed and delighted” by Sattouf’s unique access to a child’s worldview and the resulting “extraordinary portrait of a person, culture, and a time.”

While the book is being marketed to adults, Kidd also expects “teens will be all over it.” (In France, an animated version of the comics went viral on TikTok.) But he warns that the cartoony cuteness of Esther is deceptive. He goes so far as to compare it to the work of one of the best-known creators in the Pantheon line, Chris Ware, “only in that when you look at it, you think, that’s sweet, but then you start to read it—it’s intense. The F word is on the first page.”

Louise Quantin, cultural attaché and director of the book and ideas department at the French Embassy, says Sattouf’s appeal arises from how he “touches on the universal and succeeds in touching readers all over the world, young and old, who find themselves in his singular heroine.”

Sattouf is now himself a father, with two young children. He’s at work on the sixth volume of The Arab of the Future in French. Drawing Esther’s story after delving so deeply into his own has brought Sattouf “a rare kind of comfort,” he says.

“For a long time, I thought my childhood was exceptional. But I don’t think that anymore. I think it’s hard for every child to become an adult.”