December 3, 2004

Babar: Ideal Role Model, Racist Imperialist, or Elitist Poster Elephant? [Check All That Apply]

babars_yoga.jpgIn 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.

Babar Goes To School is one of the new Abrams editions. I don't know it, but Babar's Yoga For Elephants sounds like I'm not the only one trying to squeeze a euro or two out of the kiddies.

The Royal Family [NYBooks]

1 Comment

Personally, one of my favorite things about Babar is that he bought a Christmas tree from an elephant named Hatchibombotar. I'm willing to overlook a lot of questionable behavior from Babar so I can expose my daughter to this (and say that name again - it just rolls off the tongue).

I forget the title of the book with the Christmas tree purchase, it's one of four little that came in a set with a little box.

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