Raoul Wieland examines the effect of colonialism in children’s stories like Babar.
Anyone remember ‘Babar the Elephant’? I do. The story of Babar was part of my childhood. I don’t remember if I enjoyed it or not but my guess is that I did, or I would not have stuck through watching episode after episode. There was the beginning, when Babar’s mother was killed by a hunter, when the little elephant was found, taken in and ‘civilized’ by the Rich Lady and when he returned home to the elephants, was made king, married Celeste and flew off in an air balloon to go on adventures, leaving behind the kingdom to his trusted advisor Cornelius and cousin Arthur.
I had forgotten all about Babar when I ran into Herbert Kohl’s book Should We Burn Babar. As I found the title intriguing and since Babar brought me back to my childhood, I bought it, read it and found it fascinating.
Kohl wrote the book with the intention of fostering a critical children’s literature, stating that “what is read in childhood not only leaves an impression behind but also influences the values, and shapes the dreams, of children”. “When there are no examples of stories for young people that fundamentally question the world as it is and dream it as it might be” he writes, “resignation, defiance, or the quest for personal success become the only imaginable option unless the young have other sources for generating hope”.
“I want to question the text of Babar in a way that children don’t and speculate on the potential effects of this apparently innocent and charming tale. The first and simplest question I’d like to ask is: Who has the power in Babar? Who makes the decisions in the story? Who is obeyed and tells the other characters what to do? And how is power distributed among characters in the text?”; and so Kohl begins.
I found this very interesting, never having thought about children’s literature in such a light before. Kohl dissects the text bit by bit. The hunter, dressed in “full colonial regalia” is a faceless, impersonal force, that is difficult to identify with the other, more benevolent humans in the book. When Babar meets the Rich Lady, whose wealth is never explained (people power works mysteriously and unambiguously in the story), he eagerly, without resistance begins to lose his elephant nature. “The rich lady dresses Babar like a person, teaches him human eating and bathing habits, and educates him like a person”.
Kohl remembers the scene of Babar in the shopping center, buying new clothes and writes that “as an adult I am bothered by his malleability and the good humor with which he jumps into becoming a well-dressed rich person-like elephant”. Babar is given a car and soon introduced to all her rich friends, whom he tells all about his life in the forest.
“In Babar the reader learns that there are different classes of people and the Rich Lady is of the better class and that elephants are not as good as people, but might be if they imitate people”, Kohl writes and asks “Was I aware of those distinctions as a child? Did I learn to admire the rich from reading the book? Did I also learn about the inferiority of creatures from the jungle (people included)?”
The book goes on and keeps following Babar’s story. Celeste and Arthur, Babar’s cousins come to visit and are promptly civilized by Babar; “he takes them to the apartment store and buys them expensive clothes”. His cousins seem delighted. Kohl draws a parallel to colonial practices when he writes that Babar seems to have been converted fully to people ways, eagerly recruiting elephants for them – “seducing some members of the group into letting them proselytize for you”. Sound familiar?
When Arthur and Celeste’s mothers come to take them home, Babar decides to come along with them. This parting scene, Kohl remembers vividly. It troubled him and upon reading it again, I share his feelings. “Babar, Celeste and Arthur, dressed to kill, drive off in Babar’s automobile, while Celeste’s and Arthur’s mothers, naked as elephants, follow along behind the car with their trunks lifted up “to avoid breathing the dust”. Babar, the male, drives, and the mothers, both uncivilized, trot along behind. The parents are made to follow their remade children while they are at the same time, losing them. Power has been transferred to the young Europeanized generation”.
He continues to write that “the civilized elephants have personal identity and distinction; the natural elephants are portrayed as indistinguishable from each other. Every time I looked at the book as a child, I felt there was something that wasn’t right. The illustration was and is painful for me to look at”. In a very subtle way, the “concept of nakedness is introduced”. Kohl writes that in the beginning when Babar was still amongst elephants, his nakedness seemed normal and fitting. Of course he does not have clothes, since elephants don’t have clothes. When he becomes civilized, living among people and eventually encounters elephants again, we begin to think about naked elephants. The idea of deficiency arises. “Civilization creates desires which turn into necessities”, Kohl writes.
Babar is crowned King of the elephants since, as Cornelius the wise, said, “he has learned so much living among men”. Kohl is right to point out that “all we are shown of his learning is that he knows how to choose clothes, order a meal at a restaurant and add 2+2. He knows how to buy things and, once again, we see that power lies with money”.
The coronation of Babar left a mark on Kohl. He discussed it with a friend who initially saw the moment as great triumph for the orphan Babar and now hated it. “Babar with his arm resting on Celeste’s shoulder, Celeste with her head bowed, and the other elephant, Cornelius, with his glasses on, handing to Babar power over all the elephants”. She told him that “what had appeared magical to her as a child now represented the triumph of the Europeanized male. It was one of many children’s books that showed her that women’s happiness derives from being chosen by the right male”.
The book continues to delve deeper and we encounter stories about Pocahontas, Pinocchio, G.I. Joe and Barbie. All now appear to me in a different light and yet I am left unsatisfied as to what the impact of such children’s stories are. Kohl himself writes that “it is easy to take children’s literature more seriously than children take it, and it’s sensible, in the midst of critical musings, to remember that sometimes an elephant in a green suit is just an elephant in a green suit”.
What I took away from the book, besides a new perspective on my beloved children’s stories, is the idea that, as Kohl writes, “it is not the question of whether children encounter Babar, but how”. Paulo Freire once said that “to study is not to consume ideas, but to create and re-create them”. Along these lines, Kohl argues that Babar and other objectionable children’s stories can be used by parents and teachers as a way for children to start critically engaging with the world: to question everything, to draw connections to the real world around them and to imagine how the story could be re-written. In this way, stories can be a means to open up the imagination to new possibilities for living and acting in the world.