Babar’s ABC – Laurent de Brunhoff

More in the Series – Babar
“More in the Series” scores the other books in a series where one (or more) of the books have made it into the 1001 Books list. Mostly because I’m a bit of a completionist. 

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

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

Alphabet books don’t really fit our metrics very well. It can’t pass the Bechdel, because there is no dialogue, and since all the characters (except the nice old lady who took Babar in) are animals, it’s hard to talk about diversity.

I will say that there is nothing in this book to suggest any awareness of any kind of cultures or ways of being other than a very white European one. The animals are all clothed in that style, the activities they engage in in the book are of European origin (despite most of them being African animals). While it’s not as overtly colonial as some of the story based books, that undertone is still there.

As far as alphabet books go, this one is kinda neat, I guess. C certainly thought it was fun, and spent some time poring over the pictures, examining them carefully. This is one of the advantages of these kinds of picture based books – that it is not so much the text as the imagery that does the work. There’s a lot of fun alliteration and so on.

Not as much fun to read, but since C is a relatively new reader, it certainly has its place. Probably the height of the series for me to be honest, which isn’t saying very much. 😉

Babar at Home – Jean de Brunhoff

More in the Series – Babar
“More in the Series” scores the other books in a series where one (or more) of the books have made it into the 1001 Books list. Mostly because I’m a bit of a completionist. 

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  1 point
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

This one is marginally better than the last one. Still no Bechdel pass, nor is there any real diversity. This one also still reads in that colonial register.

But, perhaps because it is focussed on the home and Babar and Celeste’s triplet babies, it is not quite so full of totally horrible colonial notions, and it’s a bit easier to be forgiving of the flaws in the story.

This one is essentially the story of the birth and early childhood of Babar’s children. There are various episodes of baby elephant hijinks. Flora nearly chokes, Alexander floats down-river in Babar’s hat and has a run in with a crocodile, from which Babar rescues him. It’s all a bit adventurous and has a small tinge of that “What ho! Growing up in Africa is rollicking good fun, old chap!” stuff going on.

Plotwise it’s episodic. I wasn’t that impressed. C still likes them well enough, and the whole hat/river/crocodile episode got his attention.

I mean, it’s not quite as eye-rollingly colonial as the previous books, but if the best I can say about it is that it’s not as bad as the others, that’s not that impressive. I know these books are meant to be greats of the kid-canon, but honestly, I think you could skip them very easily.

Babar the King – Jean de Brunhoff

More in the Series – Babar
“More in the Series” scores the other books in a series where one (or more) of the books have made it into the 1001 Books list. Mostly because I’m a bit of a completionist. 

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  1 point
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

I am afraid I really cannot give this book very much credit. Not only does it utterly fail the Bechdel, and smell quite strongly of some pretty old school colonialism, but it’s not even a well structured story!

The only female character who has a name is Celeste (Babar’s queen) who gets exactly two words of dialogue in the whole book. The other major female character is known simply as The Old Lady, and she exists basically to provide trite “wise” aphorisms and a plot point for Babar.

The gist of this story is that all Babar’s stuff from his travels arrives home, and he uses it to bribe the elephants to help him build a town (which he, like any good monarch, names after his almost-silent queen: Celesteville). There is much peace and prosperity, and then it is as if the author suddenly realised that a book needs some conflict, so out of the blue the Old Lady is bitten by a snake and Babar’s mentor Cornelius’ house gets burned down.

Fortunately the Old Lady has her wisdom aphorism app working, so she assures Babar (after a night’s recovery in hospital) that troubles are only there to make us appreciate what we have (or some similar nonsense), and they all go on happily and wiser. Or something.

C said he liked it, but I can’t help but think that’s because elephants, basically. I found the story disjointed, the overt colonial themes annoying, and just generally was not impressed.

Skip it.

Babar’s Travels – Jean de Brunhoff

More in the Series – Babar
“More in the Series” scores the other books in a series where one (or more) of the books have made it into the 1001 Books list. Mostly because I’m a bit of a completionist. 

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  1 point.
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points.

Oh Babar. You almost had me until the savage cannibals. Seriously. *facepalm*

I remember reading a thing during my MA about how incredibly colonial these books were, and reading them now I can totally see the point. There is something profoundly colonial about Babar as a character, and the ‘travels’ he goes on.

There is definitely no Bechdel pass – Celeste is the only female character – and in fact, even “the Old Lady” who is very beloved by Babar is never named.

The portrayal of the ‘savage cannibals’ is pretty extremely racist, in a cringe-worthy almost caricaturish way. Of course it is a product of its time, and I get that, but it did result in me having to have a conversation with my five year old about how innaccurate it was and why portraying people like this is really not okay.

And then there’s the whole war with the rhinos thing. They go to war over what amounts to a child’s prank. I mean it’s a bad prank, to be sure, and I certainly don’t think Arthur should have gotten away with tying firecrackers to someone’s tail, but a whole war is a bit excessive. This story arch feels like the worst kind of over the top colonial jingoism. It’s laughable, like children playing at soldiers, and I could almost believe it’s meant to be a bit satirical, except that I really think it’s not.

Even the women pitching in as nurses thing feels vaguely jingoistic, and the fact that the book was published in 1935 kind of lends weight to my impression that we’re not meant to read this as satire. I think we’re honestly supposed to see Babar as some sort of war hero. Which… well, you know, his great plan is to paint faces on the elephants butts and scare the rhinos away. Which works. I don’t buy it.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the first book, and I’m even less sold on this one. C gave it a thumbs up, but you know, he’s five and it does have some cool pictures, and there’s that butt-gag. I was disappointed.

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?