In the New York Review of Books, Alison Lurie takes a long, historical and memory-filled look at Babar, The King of the Elephants, the 1931 bedtime story creation of Cecile de Brunhoff and her artist husband, Jean. Jean published six Babar books before his death, and his son, Laurent, as written and illustrated dozens more since then.
Being French, Babar has been subject to much intellectualizing and analysis, including the ever-ominous Message He Sends To Children:
Ariel Dorfman, in The Empire's Old Clothes (1983), has suggested that the attitude toward childhood in the early Babar books is also typically French. "Universal bliss is assured by grown-up figures who never make mistakes, and are unsusceptible to criticism." For Americans, he believes, childhood is an age for fun and adventures, an end in itself, whereas for the Frenchit is a period of probation.Other criticisms of Babar include his elitism; his vast wealth obtained without apparent effort; the books' imperialistic, "false moral" that backward countries will improve by adopting Western practices; the socio-political messages of The Rhino Wars; and early drawings of "savages" that are now considered racist.
[Never mind, Lurie points out, that the complainers who loved Babar as kids don't seem taken in by his bourgeois dogma, or that his son apologized and vowed decades ago not to reprint the earliest, offending books.]
I, too, enjoyed Babar as a child, and I look forward to reading about the elephants' well-behaved antics with the kid some day. But to me, at least right now, Babar is a giant, Amazonian cash register, a vast pool of wealth which I hope to attain without apparent effort, as each and every wistful, holiday-happy one of you buys the newly reissued series of Babar books published by Abrams.
My favorites were the original The Story of Babar and Babar The King, which has the one dude bitten by a snake and all the preachy ghosts. Random House has published all six Jean de Bruhhoff stories in one volume, Bonjour, Babar.
The Royal Family [NYBooks]