As a child, I enjoyed the Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff and probably still have some in a box somewhere. I found the drawings charming; the story a bit more disturbing. How could the author open with the mother being killed! I almost had a chance to find out more because in college, I dated someone related to the de Brunhoff family, and almost had a chance to meet the son Laurent de Brunhoff who carried on the family tradition with the stories and drawings.
So, it was great to get the Sept 22 New Yorker, and read a thoughtful article by Adam Gropnik "Freeing the Elephants: What are the Babar Stories Really About" which interrogates the questions of French colonialism and the fascination we have with the "wild" and "nature" versus civilization and "order." I especially liked the way that Gropnik positioned French stories with British and American. He says,
"In London, in children's books, life is too orderly and one logns fo the vitality of the wild; in Paris, order is an achievement, hard won against the natural chaos an cruelty of adult life; in New York, we begin most stories in an indefferent city and the child has to create a kind of order within it."(50)
(sorry, I haven't found the article online, but here's a slide show of images.
And here's an audio interview with Gropnik about the controversy of the elephants.
(Note: On a train across Scotland in 1968, I got in a huge controversy with a friend who claimed that the title was really Barbar. We had no way to check who was right. Very frustrating! Of course I should have entirely let it go.)
Photo copyright by de Brunhoff, print for sale from Russell Rare Prints.