Sunday, September 28, 2008


Last week, The New Yorker ran a very interesting article on Babar, the children's book series. I remember reading Babar and watching some episodes on television once it started airing, but I never knew any of the background story to its creation, its overall premise, and the underlying meanings.

During the 1930s, Jean de Brunhoff published 6+ Babar stories for his son, Laurent de Brunhoff. Unfortunately, Jean died prematurely, when Laurent was very young. Once Laurent grew up, he continued to write the Babar stories, almost reliving his childhood and paying homage to his deceased father.

What is shocking to me is how morbid the initial story of Babar is. I always find it strange how dark and dreary children's stories can be. In recent times, we've been watering down these children's stories, making them all happy and cheery, completely different from the more depressing tales. Such stories that I think of that are dark, dreary, and morbid are some of the following: Bambi, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, Madeline, , etc.

Babar's initial story is that Babar's mother is killed right in front of him, abandoning him and leaving him alone in the country. Babar then migrates to the city, Paris, to live amongst the people. He befriends an old lady and soon rises to power to become king of the elephants.

What is interesting about the Babar books is that they capture the essence of the city of Paris, the country of France. The article, entitled "Freeing the Elephants" by Adam Gopnik, also notes other children's books that paint "a certain idea" of a country. Babar is one book that exposes French culture as well as Madeline and Where the Wild Things Are. London and England are captured in children's books such as Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, The Wind and the Willows, and The Hobbit. New York and the US are captured in Stuart Little, The Pushcart War, Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and The House on 88th Street.

I think it's very interesting to see how places are developed and represented in children's stories, especially since many of these stories are introductions of life to children and become deeply embedded in their early learning process and memories.

Going a bit deeper, this article talks about the deeper, underlying meanings of Babar, which made it be a bit of a taboo. It is noted as an allegory of colonialism, a "fable of the difficulties of a borgeoius life." Babar is even quoted saying, "Truly it is not easy to bring up a family." Different animals wander in and out of the city, some of the elephants can be turned into slaves at whim, they fight with the rhinocerases (making war seem silly because who really is superior, and does it even matter?).

Gopnik writes that "death is only a rifle shot (Babar's mother's death) and a poisoned mushroom away (the king's death) [...] The only security lies in our commitment to those graceful winged elephants that chase away misfortune. Love and Happiness, who are at the heart of the American vision, are, mere tiny camp followers. The larger winged elephants are at the forefront of this French vision of civilized life, are instead Intelligence, Patience, Learning, and Courage."

"'Let's work hard and cheerfully and we'll continue to be happy,' the Old Lady tells the elephants, and, though we know that the hunter is still in the woods, it is hard to know what more is to add."

Further, the allegory of French colonialization can be seen by the complacent colonizers: "Good elephants" are represented by African natives who are brought to the imperial capital in order to become acculturated, and then they are sent back to their homelands. The fact that animals are naked and on all fours in the jungle shows the horrid treatment and belittling of these people. To become an imitation human (dressed elephants standing on two legs) gives them power. "To be French is to be made human and to be made superior."

Hm. Quite an interesting way to interpret children's books. I'm sure that if you indulged in the children's books and the television series that more could be drawn out of the text.

So, what do you think of Babar or how children's stories say something deeper about a time or a place?

1 comment:

JLH said...

My grandchildren, especially the 5 and the 7 rear old ones, LOVE Babar and ask me to read them all the time. I love the books too but have been partially disturbed by them and have been pondering a blog post. Then ADAM GOPNIK HIT THE PRESSES WITH HIS GREAT ARTICLE, WHICH I DISCOVERED AND READ JUST TODAY AFTER SEEING THE LETTERS TO THE EDITOR. SO I'M RE-pondering my post but too busy to write it right now! I enjoyed yours.