Written and Illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff
Harper Collins, 1931
In the great forest a little elephant is born. His name is Babar.
What makes this book so dangerous? It promotes colonialism.
Babar lives happily in the forest with his mother and friends until one sad day when his mother is shot by a hunter. He runs away and finds himself in a town where everything seems new and interesting. He is befriended by a rich old lady who gives him money for a new suit of clothes and takes him into her house as a lodger. He learns from a tutor and makes many friends, but he misses his life in the forest. Two years later, his elephant cousins show up and he entertains them. When their mothers come to get them, Babar returns with them to the forest. That same day, the elephant King dies and Babar is chosen to be the next King. He accepts and announces that he has become engaged to his cousin, Celeste. They are married and depart on their honeymoon in a big yellow balloon.
This story began as a story that author Jean de Brunhoff’s wife Cecile made up for their children when one of them was sick. The boys loved the story so much that they asked their father to paint pictures to accompany the story and he had it published as a picture book. Initially, his wife was given a story credit, but it was removed at her request. This initial book was followed by six more from Mr. de Brunhoff and many more after his son took over the series in 1948. There was also an animated television series that ran for a few years in the late 80’s/early 90’s.
I adore this book and have for many years. I have a print of one of this book’s illustrations hanging on my living room wall. (It’s the one when he is having his picture taken while shopping in the city.) The artwork is wonderful, with bright colors and lovely scenery. I love his choice to include a beautiful black and white picture of Babar and Celeste after their wedding and coronation, looking at the distant hills and the night sky beyond. The book has been criticized internationally for what is seen as a forced colonial lifestyle on the animals under his reign and the next book in the series was even further criticized for its stereotypical representation of the ‘savages’ they encounter on their honeymoon in Africa. It’s still beloved worldwide, though, and recently celebrated its 80th birthday.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that it’s wonderful to move on and build a new life for yourself, but it can also be nice to return to your roots, as well. The important thing is to find what works best for you.