Sunday, September 28, 2008


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.



Blogger Julie Colibri said...

Interesting. I remember these books.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Meg Seaver said...

Mr. Gropnik:
I have a small fish bone to pick with you about your comment in "Freeing the elephants"about Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo( written in 1898 );ike Babar(as much for its endpapers which we studied assiduously trying to count all the elephants!) this little book was a favorite of our childhood. As librarian I have read it for years now (it was never "banned" in England) in a "cycle" of pancake stories--this original little book IS the 1st grade curriculum in a nutshell and has always been accepted and LOVED by my international clientele of 5-6 year -olds(they are unaware of the connotation of "Sambo"(my blond greek god looking cousin Sam we called Sambo and so I too took no offence; this book first by its size then by its incredibly well written text with its rhyme and rythm---talks about families, clothes, colors, food, tigers, fear, cunningness. and big numbers! too is a classic!
Meg Seaver
LS librarian at the American School of Paris since 1986

12:22 PM  
Blogger Sara Jameson said...

Meg Seaver --

Thank you for your interest in this piece about Gopnik's take on Babar. I'm delighted to have reached a librarian in Paris.

First, let me clarify that I am not Gopnik, but Sara Jameson, a writing instructor in Oregon. (Though I like Gopnik's work - see my next post.)

Next, though, I recall reading Sambo as a child in Washington DC in the early 1950's and being horrified at the portrayal of the Black children.

Perhaps it is the Parisian acceptance of Africans and African Americans (Josephine Baker et al) that has made books such as Sambo better received there.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Meg Seaver said...

Indeed--I don't know how to get this comment to Mr FGropnik---and as I said it is a little fish bone---but back to "Little Black Sambo"--gosh Sarah--the fact that you refer to this wonderful classic as"Sambo"---that is the problem---please look at the original book which has never been out of print in England and is now available in USA---I take offence that you refer to this tome as "Sambo"that in there is the problem! the title of the book I refer to is is THE STORY OF LITTLE BLACK SAMBO by Helen Bannerman

11:59 AM  
Blogger Michael Faris said...

Sounds like you might be interested in the book Should We Burn Babar? I own it, but I haven't read it.

Meg, I'd question your assumption that just because something is enjoyable and well written that it is automatically "good." Of course, "good" is defined in various ways. I haven't read Sambo, but I imagine that it perpetuates a lot of racist imagery that resonates in the United States.

4:51 PM  

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