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’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.

Elmer Again – David McKee

More in the Series – Elmer
“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: 3 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point.

I much preferred this book to the first Elmer book. It still has no female characters to speak of and the elephants are all still pretty Anglo-Saxon, but there was something about this one that I liked much more than the first.

I think perhaps it is because Elmer, as a character has settled into himself much more. He’s still a trickster, but there is less of a feeling that he’s being entertaining and amusing so that the other elephants like him, and is actually just being true to himself.

The story is set on “Elmer Day”, a day when the elephants all celebrate Elmer and his bright colours, which in itself is kind of nifty. (Maybe if we, as a world, celebrated difference, things would be a bit better around here.) He plays a trick on the elephants, convincing them that his colours have washed off.

I am not a fan of pranking, for the most part, because most pranks require someone to be hurt or embarrassed, but Elmer manages to be a prankster with no ‘victim’. His trick is good-natured, and the idea of the book (yay difference) is a lot more subtle in this one than in the first. It feels more like a story about an elephant (who happens to look different) than a story about An Elephant Who Is Different, if you see what I mean.

It’s a good one. I recommend it.

What do you think? Are you a fan of Elmer? What are your favourite elephant books? What are your favourite books about the value of difference?

 

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?

 

Elmer – David McKee

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 1 point
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point.

I’ll admit, I’ve cheated slightly on the points for this one. I’ve given it the variety of characters point even though all the characters are animals. BUT I’m justifying it by saying that the whole point of Elmer is to teach tolerance for someone who doesn’t look like ‘everyone else’.

It’s a tricky one really though, because the whole patchwork elephant thing is fundamentally ‘othering’. Elmer is different because he’s not ‘elephant coloured’, assuming of course that there’s only one way to be correctly coloured if you’re an elephant. But, you know, it’s still good to accept and maybe even celebrate the ‘wrongly’ coloured elephant.

Don’t get me wrong, I think celebration of difference in a children’s book is an admirable thing, but there is something happening here that I think often happens in discourses about difference. It’s the reason I try to avoid the word “diversity” (which is no easy task, believe me) – it fundamentally assumes there is something to be diverse from, there is a norm and an other instead of simply a variety of ‘normals’.

I am probably horribly overthinking this. 🙂 I do that. Elmer is a charming book, with awesome illustrations, and what it is trying to do is ideologically good, I think. But it feels like a first step to me – liberalism 101, where we generously bestow our mark of approval on the ‘difference’ as if it is up to us.

I do not want ‘different’ kids (whatever kind of difference they feel they have) to think that to be accepted they have to be jolly and fun and make everyone laugh like Elmer does. I don’t want them to think their value lies in how well they can make their difference work for the herd in order to be ‘acceptable’. I want them to know their value is intrinsic. Not dependent.

And so, I give it a point for variety and a point for ideology, but I’d like to see more. This is a good first step. Step further.

It’s a great tale though. 🙂 And I love me some elephants. And its fun to read. So there is that. ;P

What do you think? Am I overthinking it? Am I setting the bar too high? Am I being too difficult to satisfy? Do you also think elephants are just supercool?

The Elephant and the Bad Baby – Elfrida Vipont

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 2 points. Good stuff all round
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point

The Elephant and the Bad Baby is a great little tale, actually, despite its low score. It’s fun to read (“rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta”…) and has that great repetitive, building up thing that so many great children’s books have.

It might almost pass the Bechdel on a technicality (the baby’s mummy talks to all the people who chased him and the elephant home, one of which is a woman), but a: the ‘lady from the sweet shop’ is unnamed, and b: I can’t really justify it when out of all the characters who follow them home, only one is a woman. So I haven’t given it the point.

There is no diversity in the characters, and definitely nothing particularly feminist about the story. But it does have a good message about saying please! So that’s something. And I’m always a bit fond of stories in which children are naughty and their parents still love them. Being as that’s something I try hard to instill into my child – that even when I’m spitting mad at him, I still love him. So I’ve given it one discretionary point.

Like I said above, it is a lot of fun to read, and C thoroughly enjoyed it, despite being quite judgy (“Mommy, they’re a bit naughty, aren’t they?”). Briggs’ illustrations are charming, albeit quite BRITISH in a very old school way (it was first published in 1969, after all), and it is quite delightful to read.

The bad baby is not so bad really (he is definitely led astray by a kleptomaniac elephant) and remembers to say please once reminded. There is an awesome pancake wielding mummy (maternal figure, not Egyptian monster). It’s good fun.

Also, I totally have a weakness for elephants, so there’s that. 😉

What do you think? Do you also get joy from the “rumpeta rumpeta”? What are your favourite books to read aloud?