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Reading My Library

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Babar the Elephant

A few weeks ago we made a trip to the library and drove ourselves into the Bru section of books which takes us straight to Babar the Elephant, created by Jean de Brunhoff.

I had read these books when I was little but had no memory or recollection of the stories themselves. I wasn't really thinking much of them other than a "trip down memory lane" when I started reading them to Bookworm1 and discovered that an evil hunter killed Babar's mother. Bookworm1 has been reacting to sad scenarios lately so I was a bit sorry I hadn't skimmed it first. Instead we talked it through on the fly and seem to have come through unscathed. (We will not be watching Bambi anytime soon though!)

In all honesty, I think Babar is kinda weird. The stories are just...different both from the perspective of time and place. Times have changed and Babar's original stories are far more blunt in their talk of cannibals and savages than I think we would naturally gravitate towards today. But, I can accept that because the first book was published in 1931 and the world was a different place. (It should be noted though that the mermaids in Babar and Zephir do not have sea shells to help cover themselves. Thankfully I caught that one before we started reading the story together!)

There are a LOT of Babar books. The first seven books were penned by Jean de Brunhoff and then after his death in 1937, his son took up the pen and produced additional Babar stories. You can definitely tell a difference in the stories, but they are all still interesting and more unique than anything we've read to date. Definitely interesting. Turns out Bookworm1 really enjoys reading about this King of the Elephants and so we made the most of our time with him, sifting through certain of the titles together.

Because I think Babar is quite the familiar character, I won't launch into a description of him. Instead I'll just provide the list of Babar books and titles as can be discovered on Wikipedia. But first I thought this was an interesting criticism that was listed on Wikipedia concerning the books:

Some writers, notably Herbert R. Kohl and Vivian Paley, have argued that, although superficially delightful, the stories are politically and morally offensive and can be seen as a justification for colonialism. Others argue that the French civilisation described in the early books had already been destroyed by the Great War and the books were originally an exercise in nostalgia for pre-1914 France. Ariel Dorfman’s The Empire’s Old Clothes is another highly critical view, in which he concludes, "In imagining the independence of the land of the elephants, Jean de Brunhoff anticipates, more than a decade before history forced Europe to put it into practice, the theory of neocolonialism." Adam Gopnik has a different point of view. In Freeing the Elephants he writes that it "is not an unconscious expression of the French colonial imagination; it is a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination and its close relation to the French domestic imagination. The gist ... is explicit and intelligent: the lure of the city, of civilization, of style and order and bourgeois living is real, for elephants as for humans." He concludes that the satisfaction derived from Babar is based on the knowledge that "while it is a very good thing to be an elephant, still, the life of an elephant is dangerous, wild, and painful. It is therefore a safer thing to be an elephant in a house near a park.

So it would seem that Babar does not come without a bit of controversy. Although I speculate the youngest readers among us would not catch on.

Without further ado, here is the list:

Jean de Brunhoff's Babar books, and the titles of the English translations, were:

  • Histoire de Babar (1931) — The Story of Babar
  • Le Voyage de Babar (1932) — The Travels of Babar, or Babar's Travels
  • Le Roi Babar (1933) — Babar the King
  • L'ABC de Babar (1934) — A.B.C. of Babar
  • Les vacances de Zéphir (1936) — Zephir's Holidays, Zephir's Vacation, or Babar and Zephir
  • Babar en famille (1938) — Babar and His Children, or Babar at Home
  • Babar et le père Noël (1941) — Babar and Father Christmas

Laurent de Brunhoff's books (selected list):

  • Babar et ce coquin d'Arthur (1948) — Babar's Cousin: That Rascal Arthur
  • Pique-nique chez Babar (1949) — Babar's Picnic
  • Babar dans l'Île aux oiseaux (1952) — Babar's Visit to Bird Island
  • Babar au cirque (1952) — Babar and the Circus
  • La fête à Celesteville (1954) — Babar's Fair
  • Babar et le professeur Girafon (1956) — Babar and the Professor
  • Le château de Babar (1961) — Babar's Castle
  • Je parle anglais avec Babar (1963) — Babar's English Lessons (published as French Lessons in English)
  • Babar Comes to America (1965)
  • Je parle allemand avec Babar (1966) — Babar's German Lessons
  • Je parle espagnol avec Babar (1966) — Babar's Spanish Lessons
  • Babar Loses His Crown (1967)
  • Babar Vists another Planet (1972)
  • Babar and the Wully-Wully (1975)
  • Babar Learns to Cook (1978)
  • Babar and the Ghost (1981)
  • Babar's ABC (1983)
  • Babar's Counting Book (1986)
  • Babar's Little Girl (1987)
  • Babar's Little Circus Star (1988)
  • Babar's Rescue (1993)
  • Le Musée de Babar (2002) — Babar's Museum
  • Babar Goes to School (2003)
  • Babar's Museum of Art (2003)
  • Babar's Book of Color (2004)
  • Babar's Busy Year (2005)
  • Babar's World Tour (2005)
  • Babar's Yoga for Elephants (2006)
  • Babar's USA (2008)

Our library had the large majority of these titles so we have become quite familiar with this famous elephant. I don't think he'll rank as one of our favorite characters of all time. (Certainly not mine. Again with the death of his mother, the listing of cannibals, and general oddities.) But it's interesting to read through the books and see how Babar has evolved and changed over the years.

There is a cartoon series based on the books as well which we have not seen. If anyone has any insight on those, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.


  1. What an interesting post. I never knew...

    M is also quite sensitive. I think we have found that Cars and Mary Poppins are our safest movies...all the others are much too risky to M's heart.

  2. I LOVE Babar -- one of my absolute favorites from childhood. I loved the unfamiliarity of the place and the lifestyle, the hint of exoticism. Had I children (and thus an excuse to buy the books), Babar would definitely be on my bookshelf.

    On a somewhat unrelated note, Bambi scarred me for life. I saw it once as a child, and it left such a negative impact on me that I've refused to watch it since. Goofy, I know. But there was something about it that I didn't like.

  3. Oh my! No clam shells to cover the mermaids! AND his mom dies?! I think we'll leave those in the library!! I think Ellie might be scarred for life by our trip to see Broadway's Lion King last week. She nearly lost it when the daddy lion was killed. I don't know why I didn't think to prepare her for that. My kids haven't seen the movie version because it's too intense. The stage version wasn't all that intense but she sure keyed on the daddy dying. You just never know what a child will focus on!