In today’s post, I am going to take up a really old picture book, one that continues to sell in large numbers, The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff (1931). First published in French, and later introduced into the English language by A.A. Milne, it has proved to be one of the world’s longest-selling and extremely popular picture books. It features an orphaned baby elephant who escapes to the city (Paris) and is raised by a rich old lady. Babar wears a green suit, eats with a fork and knife, is literate and plays the piano. One day, he returns to the forest, and is crowned King of the elephants.
Jean de Brunhoff trained as a painter and his illustrations for the book are detailed, beautiful and comic as well. Maurice Sendak observed that Brunhoff’s “freshness of vision ….. forever changed the face of the illustrated book”. Brunhoff created a series of seven books about Babar before a tragically early death at the age of 37. Years later, his son Laurent continued the series.
However, the book has also run into a lot of controversies and there have been several demands to ban it. It has been called an allegory for French colonialism. The naked Babar is ‘civilised’, ‘clothed’, ‘acculturated’ and made into ‘a proper gentleman’. When he returns to the forest, he is offered the crown for, as the council of elephants tells him, he has “lived among men and learned much”. Thus, the ways of the metropolis or the colonizing power are considered to be superior to the ways and wisdom of the native.
The illustrations which have been praised for their aesthetic value, have also faced a lot of flak from postcolonial critics. The pictures associate the city with order, harmony and peace, whereas the forest and its denizens are correlated with shame (naked, unclothed inhabitants), disorder (the old elephant king dies on eating a poisonous mushroom), violence (Babar’s mother is shot dead there, and later the rhinoceros and the elephants go to war against each other). Since children spend a lot of time looking at the illustrations, critics worry about the ideas children are likely to take away from picture books such as The Story of Babar.
I shall leave you with these questions: Do children’s books have a lasting impact on young readers? Do we need to ban such books when they also give great joy to children?