This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on November 4, 2016.
I recently picked up a copy of The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, in the $1 sale bin at my local library. It was in pristine condition, and looked like it had never been read. It was only after several happy weeks of reading it to my toddler, that I remembered why it might have found its way into that discard pile, in that condition. The answer can be found in Herbert Kohl’s seminal critique of children’s literature entitled Should We Burn Babar?
When considering questions of multiculturalism, it is always problematic evaluating the so-called “classics” of children’s literature: beloved they may be by many generations of parents and grandparents, but there is no escaping the fact that many of them reflect attitudes towards race, culture, and power that are no longer considered acceptable in contemporary society. Even more problematic is the fact that these attitudes are rarely stated baldly in such texts; instead, they are insinuated or lie just beneath the surface in the assumptions and implicit meanings constructed by the author and imposed upon the unwary reader. Babar is no exception.
The picture book, first published in 1933, tells the story of a young elephant who drifts into Paris after his mother is unceremoniously killed by a nameless and faceless hunter. In the city, Babar meets a “very Rich Old Lady” (de Brunhoff 11) who gives him everything he wants, including fancy clothes, education, and a car. Richer, better-educated, and more civilized, Babar eventually returns to the jungle to become King of the Elephants.
Ostensibly a simple story about loss, recovery, and adventure, Kohl identifies troubling undercurrents within the text of Babar: “In Babar the reader learns that there are different classes of people and the Rich Lady is of the better (that is richer) class and that elephants are not as good as people, but might be if they imitate people” (Kohl 7). This view coincides with Beverley Naidoo’s assertion that “power is clearly also a function of features such as class, gender, sexuality and able-bodiedness, as well as ‘race’” (Naidoo 14): in other words, Babar’s markers of sophistication describe a hierarchy of imperialist values. That contemporary readers and critics of these popular children’s picture books are increasingly uncomfortable about the images of imperialism they contain is evident: in an article written for the New Yorker in 2008, for example, Adam Gopnik discusses the way that the books have become the center of “a surprisingly resilient and hydra-headed argument about the uses of imagery and the subtleties of imperialist propaganda” (Gopnik, 2008, n.p.). He also cannot resist the temptation to defend Babar from the accusation of inappropriateness, however, writing that “Part of the joke is in the way the obvious animalness of the protagonist makes evident the absurdity of the human behavior depicted” (Gopkik, 2008, n.p.). For Gopnik, therefore, the tale is not merely a straightforward representation of power relations, but instead a complex critique of the human impulse to create hierarchies of behavior and status.
Do children really think like this? How harmful, really, can these themes be when buried within a simple narrative? The search for the answer to this complicated question about textual interpretation raises another question: how do children, with no theoretical understanding of race, culture, and power, understand and respond to these themes and ideas? Reader-response theory is complex, and has yet to unravel a definitive answer to this question. An indication, however, can be found in cognitive science. Published in 2012, the New York Times article “Your Brain on Fiction” describes how researchers in cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto have discovered that “The brain … does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life” (Paul, 2012, n.p.), leading them to speculate that “novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings” (Paul, 2012, n.p.). Even more troubling is their conclusion that “the brain … treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters” (Paul, 2012, n.p.). Particularly for children, then, Babar – whether it does so deliberately or not – involves readers in the negotiation of power, status, wealth, and relationship that Babar himself experiences.
So, is the presentation of colonialism which is so implicitly present in Barbar unethical or merely distasteful? Looking back at the text, my gut feeling is that this simple dichotomy is inappropriate. While troubling themes are clearly present, it should also be acknowledged that those same themes are a part of the continuing reality of racism and imperialism in American culture. In other words, Barbar does represent the truth of many children’s experiences with racial inequality in modern society, including their need to negotiate the often unfair and unacknowledged inequalities of power and status that remain a feature of contemporary society. What it comes down to, in my opinion, is therefore perspective: from what viewpoint do children enter into this story? As reader response critic Stanley Fish so famously theorized, that perspective is not inherent in the text, but is built by the reader and – in this case – the teacher/parent who mediates the text with the child. In discussing the important role that children’s literature can play in developing multicultural awareness, critics have ascribed to texts the “power to expand [children’s] worldviews, creating opportunities for understanding” (Gopalakrishnan and Persiani-Becker, 2011, p. 10) and the promotion of “basic values such as: honesty, respect, care for others, responsibility, and respecting the rights of others” (Suh and Samuel, 2011, p. 2). In view of these powers, it is ultimately the responsibility of those who mediate such texts to children to ensure that they occupy the most beneficial reader perspective available, experiencing the text not from the viewpoint of privileged power, but instead empathizing with Barbar’s struggles and compromises. When I next sit down to read Barbar with my son, we are going to have a long talk about violence and power. And probably, because he’s three, cookies.
De Brunhoff, Jean (1961). The Story of Barbar, the Little Elephant. Trans. Merle S. Haas. New York: Random House.
Gopalakrishnan, A., and Persiani-Becker, K. (2011). Multicultural Children’s Literature: A Critical Issues Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Gopnik, A. (2008). “Freeing the Elephants: What Barbar Brought.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/09/22/freeing-the-elephants.
Kohl, Herbert R. (1995). Should we Burn Barbar?: Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories. New York: The New Press.
Naidoo, Beverley. (1992). Through Whose Eyes? Exploring Racism: Reader, Text and Context. London: Trentham Books.
Paul, Annie Murphy. "Your Brain on Fiction." The New York Times. 17 Mar. 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?_r=0.
Suh, B. K., & Samuel, F. A. (2011). “The value of multiculturalism in a global village: In the context of teaching children's literature.” New England Reading Association Journal, 47(1), 1-10.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.