The earliest memory I have is of my father teaching me to draw an elephant out of black ink on thick honey-washed watercolor paper.
Later, as an adult, I learned that he only knew how to draw this one animal, and I only kept drawing it because I thought it was his favorite. I suspect he was short on ideas for how else to bond, so he kept up with the elephant theme and brought home from the library “Babar the Elephant”. I have so much childhood nostalgia of sitting, reading, and writing with my dad, but I fucking hated Babar from the moment we opened it, and that was the end of elephant stuff.
So when I was about to have a kid of my own and opened a Babar baby shower gift, I wanted to chuck it in the diaper pail. To be sure, I re-read the book for the first time in about 20 years. What kind of corrupt subhuman would plant this propaganda into the homes and minds of young children? French colonizers who kidnapped African children and put people on display in human zoos, that’s what.
So let me walk you back through the original story a bit. “Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant” was originally written in 1931 by Jean de Brunhoff. In this story, young Babar’s mother is killed by a hunter, he is abandoned by all of his forest friends, so he runs to the city where he is taken in by the Rich Lady. Babar is instantly enamored and becomes “civilized” under the instruction of the Rich Lady. Two of his elephant cousins, Arthur and Celeste, eventually run away from the forest to join Babar, who teaches them what he’s learned, and they too are now “civilized.”
Arthur and Celeste’s mothers soon follow and are angry at the children for running away. Babar decides he isn’t completely happy in the city. He misses the forest, he misses his friends, and he and his family ought to return. While they journey back, the King of the Elephants dies in the forest after accidentally eating a poisonous mushroom. The elephants are unsure of who to name as his successor, but then Babar pulls up, and the elephants know by the sight of him that he must be the new king. Babar marries his cousin Celeste, and she becomes queen. This first story ends with Babar and Celeste in a hot air balloon, ready to travel the world.
Babar was written in the same year as the Paris Colonial Exposition (1931), an event that functioned something like a visual report card intended to display the so-called successes of the colonial powers. Each colonizing country was given a pavilion in which to showcase their stories of successful transformation of savages into civilization. France itself shipped in artists, thinkers, and entertainers from its then 47 colonies to entertain the crowds. About 9 million people came to see Moroccan architecture, Madagascar artists, Vietnamese films — all being celebrated as French achievements.
It does not sound unlike Epcot Center, but with enslaved people.
There were moments of confusion between art and real life for the spectators:
“Outside an exhibit building, a Madagascar woman rounded up one of her little boys, stood him up in a tub and proceeded to wash him down with clear water. As the scrubbing advanced, the child glistened with cleanliness, but the water turned progressively dirtier. Finally, the woman reached down, scooped up a bottleful of the liquid, and had the boy drink it down. According to Jean Camp and André Corbier, visitors came away persuaded that this was how the black race maintained its shadowy color.”
– Arthur Chandler
Perhaps because the ticket-holders were only expecting high art, they couldn’t imagine themselves stumbling upon a private moment in which a mother is simply bathing a dirty child, and certainly not one who has seen children die of dehydration. And so, the colonizer’s mind interpreted a bath as entertainment for their (mis)education.
“When children are not taught to read visual elements, especially those that caricaturize humans or cultures in less than positive ways, they often subsume these elements as truths, and reproduce them in their own texts. Discussions of ‘why’ an artist used this mark or color or how different objects are placed on a canvas could lead to discussions of how to disrupt uncritical, common sense understandings of human nature (Lewison et al., 2002) as well as how to critically interrogate messages that may demean people, or simplify social issues.” – (255)
Peppered throughout Babar are verbal and visual symbols of power and subjugation, some more obvious than others. Children readily pick up on lessons about who’s in charge, because those details relate to a child’s everyday survival. Toward the animals in the forest, we notice demeaning treatment by Brunhoff. When Babar’s mother is shot, he is abandoned by the others. “The monkey hides,” Brunhoff writes. The forest elephants are drawn in crude and unrefined lines, like Homer Simpson in the first season of “The Simpsons”.
Brunhoff writes the city people with humanity and depth. The hunter is faceless, but the Rich Lady is generous in educating Babar. So the city people aren’t all the same, Babar and the child-reader learn.
When Babar first meets the Rich Lady, he is standing naked with a stray dog. They are both on all four feet. The Rich Lady is walking her yorkie, who is wearing a sweater.
Once he buys clothes with her money, he begins to walk like a human. He tells stories of the forest to the Rich Lady and her friends, and they fetishize him just as the tourists at the Colonial Exposition fetishized black bodies and culture. You can see in the looks and posture of the men on the right that they are still somewhat scandalized and unsure of Babar. He is not quite so welcome by everyone as the Rich Lady may make it seem.
The Rich Lady gifts Babar a car. To the reader, this is meant to subtly symbolize social mobility and the ability to spread his education throughout the world, though we who are reading this critically know it is a false symbol. It is propaganda.
Arthur and Celeste, who are young like Babar, take to city life and walk like humans too. This time, is not the Rich Lady who teaches them, but Babar. Throughout history, colonies were won in exactly this way — first kill the elders, then reeducate the children in more palatable homes, and finally, have those children recruit many others. Arthur and Celeste’s mothers are not even offered any clothes when they come to the city, perhaps because they were angry at the children for running away. Or perhaps because elephants are supposed to be naked.
One particular section, when they all return to the forest, is most gutting for me as a parent to read. Babar, Celeste, and Arthur all ride in the car, wearing their clothes. “The mothers do not fit in the car, so they run behind.” They are naked and on all fours, “holding their trunks high to avoid breathing in the dust.” Just as Babar was separated from his mother, the Rich Lady separated Arthur, Celeste, and their future generations from those mother elephants.
When they make it back to the forest and find the King has died, the eldest elephant suggests, “My dear friends, we are looking for a king, why not choose Babar? He comes from the city, he has learnt a great deal from men. Let us give him the crown.” And why wouldn’t a young reader see this is a logical choice? Just take a look at the picture of the dying King. He looks like he’s got the shits and wasn’t bright to being with vs this illustration of Babar rolling in with the top down seat back.
This last bit of imagery is especially underhanded and disheartening. Here, Babar accepts his role as king in front of all the naked, waiting-to-be-dressed elephants. His arm is around his Queen Celeste, who hasn’t spoken a single word in the story, and she tucks slightly into him, thus quietly supporting him as proselytizer for Europe.
So how did I know at age five to be skeptical of Babar? Maybe I didn’t right away, but I got there pretty fast, and I think it’s because I was raised to read, write, and speak beyond the White gaze. I hated it back then, of course, because it was Sunday school, extra homework, and it made me the weird Asian kid whose parents could but wouldn’t talk to her in English. It doesn’t help that some Punjabi people always sound mad when they talk. Multilingualism in and of itself isn’t the solution to critical literacy. If it were, every parent with a buck would be raising the mastermind they think they’re raising. In reading books by non-white authors in non-European and non-American settings during a time when I was situating myself within my own identity, it only became natural for me to consume art with an eye always on perspective. I feel sad and angry at Brunhoff that there the adults now who open Babar and don’t just automatically see how harmful a story it is in the way it contributes to xenophobic hysteria in these times. I’m only shocked and a bit scared when parents buy this story for their kids to consume.
As a parent to a two-year-old, part of me sometimes wishes in selective censorship, but that doesn’t really mean I’ll have a safe child who has good judgment and knows how to move through and contribute well to the world. So instead, I read books to my child that expose them to unexpected and surprising (to us) behaviors from people who live in countries where our neighbors immigrated from or my parents were born in. My kid won’t be taught to default to American as her identity, and in knowing the complexity of her roots, she can know the depth of complexity that informs the perspectives of those around her. We point out and name skin color in the pictures we see, and we also look at the artist’s placement decisions, syntactical choices, inclusionary and exclusionary language, and how all of these things make us feel. With perspective comes a willingness to explore complex narratives about each other, and from there comes community. In the meantime, it feels like I’m writing my own Asian-American kids book each time I read any book to my kid, and I hope this community will start creating forward-thinking and narrative-changing work for our kids.