One-Minute Book Reviews

December 19, 2008

The Babar Books as Satire (Quote of the Day / Edward Rothstein)

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What does it mean when a young elephant leaves the countryside, travels to a imposing town, and dons handsome clothes? Few classic picture books have sparked more controversy in the past two decades than the 37-book series about Babar, an orphaned elephant who becomes a king, begun by Jean de Brunhoff in the 1930s and kept alive after his death by his son Laurent.

Maurice Sendak has said that Jean de Brunhoff’s tales “have a freedom and charm, a freshness of vision, that captivates and takes the breath away” and that “forever changed the face of the illustrated book.” But some scholars have cast Babar as an allegory for the evils of colonialism in general and French colonialism in particular.

Edward Rothstein weighs the arguments in a review of “Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors,” on display at the Morgan Library & Museum though Jan. 4 www.themorgan.org. Rothstein notes that the educator Herbert Kohl has faulted the books for their admiration for Babar, who embraces trappings of the society that produced the colonial hunter who killed his mother:

“But as the critic Adam Gopnik points out in a rich, suggestive essay in the show’s catalog, these arguments miss the point. The saga is not an ‘unconscious instance of the French colonial imagination,’ Mr.Gopnik writes, ‘it is a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination.’ Jean de Brunhoff knew precisely what he was doing. Invoking the colonial world of the 1930s and France’s mission of civilizing subjugated peoples, he was also satirizing that world, celebrating some things while being wary of others, knowing the need for civilization while also knowing the costs and inevitable failures that accompany it.”

Read all of Rothstein’s comments at www.nytimes.com/2008/09/22/arts/design/22baba.html. The series about Babar began with The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, shown here.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 24, 2007

Jack Prelutsky’s Rhyming Animal Poems for Young Children


“Behold the bold UMBRELLAPHANT
That’s not the least afraid
To forage in the broiling sun
For it is in the shade.”

Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrations by Carin Berger. Greenwillow, 32 pp., $17.89. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

For more than six months, a review of Jack Prelutsky’s collection of sports poems has appeared repeatedly among the top 10 posts on this site. I wish the distinction were going to a worthier book than Good Sports, which has uninspired rhymes, clichéd language and art that’s mismatched with the text.

Prelutksy’s 2006 Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is in every way superior to it. This sparkling collection of poems about imaginary animals pays its respects to Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile.” (“How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tale, / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale!”) Because “The Crocodile” was a parody of an Isaac Watts poem, you might call “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” a parody of a parody.

But Prelusky’s book isn’t a parody so much as an homage. Like “The Crocodile,” most poems in “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” use the ballad stanzas known as common meter or “hymn” stanzas, or alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter with rhyming first and third lines. And Prelusky stays close enough to Carroll’s work that his book could have become a tired imitation of it.

Instead the poems in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant have a freshness all their own, paired with sparkling mixed-media illustrations by Carin Berger. Each poem describes a creature that is part animal and part familiar object – an elephant with an umbrella for a trunk in the “The Umbrellaphant,” an octopus with an alarm clock for a head in “The Clocktopus.” This device could have been too clever by a half. It isn’t, partly because Prelutsky keeps most poems as simple and descriptive as “The Panthermometer,” about a panther with a thermometer for a tail: “Here comes a PATHERMOMETER / A cat we fondly hail, / For we can tell the temperature / By looking at its tail.”

Will preschoolers will get the puns and other wordplay in poems like “The Lynx of Chain”? Wrong question. Like Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is nonsense verse, a form that uses whimisical or incomprehensible words to comic effect. And not the least of the virtues of this book is that it may help to prepare children to appreciate Carroll and other masters of that vanishing art.

Best poem: Many, including the lines from “The Panthermometer” and “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” quoted above.

Worst line: The poem “The Circular Sawtoise” describes a creature that combines a tortoise and a circular saw and borders too clever, in part because of the pronunction of “sawtoise.” When you first see the title of the poem, you mentally pronounce it as “saw-toys.” You have to study the picture to realize that it’s “saw-tis” in “tortoise.”

Published: September 2006 www.harpercollinschildrens.com and www.jackprelusky.com

Caveat lector: The second and fourth lines should be indented four spaces in the lines quoted from the title poem, “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant,” but this template won’t let me do that.

Furthermore: This book is also available on an unabridged audio CD, which I haven’t seen. To read the review of Good Sports, click here: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/12/. read Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile,” click here: www.poetry-archive.com/c/the_crocodile.html

Children’s book reviews appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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