The Story of Babar, The Little Elephant – Jean de Brunhoff

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

Bechdel:  0 point
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 2 points
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

Babar is a pretty interesting phenomenon to me. I never read the books as a child, so I have no nostalgia for them, and while I recognise, as a student of children’s literature, that this book was fairly revolutionary from a picture book design point of view, I cannot help but read it through a post-colonial lens.

Yes, yes, I know, perhaps that is all too academic for a kids’ book. But I can’t help it. Post-colonialism is one of those schools of narrative theory that has curled up and taken residence in my brain, and this book is, well, a textbook case.

Wild African elephant leaves ‘the jungle’ and goes off to ‘civilisation’, where he is clothed (!!) and educated in the ways of a modern (and very Western European) society. Then when some of his family show up, all naked (like elephants are) he clothes them too, and goes home with them, where his own people, recognising how totes superior he is with his new ‘civilised, educated’ ways, crown him king.

I mean… you see what I’m saying right? It’s so overtly colonial as to be impossible to miss. Hell, when I asked my 5 year old what he thought, he said he liked it, but it was “a bit funny” that the elephants wore clothes. “Elephants don’t wear clothes, Mommy.” Even my 5 year old can smell that something is a bit off with this story. And it’s not like it’s the first story he’s encountered where animals wear clothes. But the clothes are so obviously this symbol of “humanness”, of “civilisation”, that even C thinks it’s “a bit funny”.

Of course the book was published in 1931, and is obviously a product of its time. But I am sorry, I can’t get past it. I know Babar is this great classic, but I find myself facepalming so hard. Just go be your true elephant self, Babar dear. Please. You don’t have to dress up all French society.

It’ll be interesting to see if my reaction to the later books is as strong.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh on Babar? Am I over-thinking the colonial thing? Are you nostalgically fond of Babar and his spats?


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