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.