I recently polled a number of friends about their “indispensable books” from childhood. Don’t we all have them, a book or two that represents safety or security, a book that challenged or comforted us? I know I do — as a child, Nancy Drew books made me feel that the world, though occasionally dangerous, was fundamentally knowable. Later on, as a teenager, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries made me feel much the same way. While crime was a regrettable fact of life in these novels (and there was the challenge) the all-knowing detective could and would uncover the truth and restore order, providing comfort. While my adult reading has moved on to embrace contradiction and ambiguity, and I haven’t read a Nancy Drew book in over thirty years, I still remember the comfort these books brought me with fondness.
When I asked my friends I got a wide variety of answers, from Where the Wild Things Are to Eloise, fairy tale books to Finn Family Moomintroll. Almost all the answers were familiar to me, and most of them I agreed with. But one surprised me: Babar.
Babar is one of those stories that one remembers fondly, as a nostalgic tale from childhood, without thinking about it much. That cute story about the elephant who lives in Paris, right? It was never one of my favorites, but I could see what she saw in it: the absurdist humor, the wacky images of the elephant in clothes, the pleasures of food.
But as my friend, of course, knows, there’s a lot going on in Babar, and some of it is a bit discomfiting. Indeed, the book is so troubling to some readers that about a dozen years ago progressive education critic Herbert Kohl published a book called Should We Burn Babar? Though Kohl ends up rejecting censorship, his reading of Babar is compelling: it’s a story, he notes, of how consumerism civilizes the savage. The forest-bred Babar, deprived in the story’s tenth sentence of his mother by a hunter’s gun, goes to live in the big city where “the Old Lady” gives him everything he wants — which turns out to include an emerald-green suit, spats, and a derby hat, not to mention the pastries.
But, ah, the pastries! As generations of children without Kohl’s insights have known, it’s also a book about the delights of childhood, of going from deprivation to riches, of finding pleasure even in the midst of pain and loss.
So which is it? And should we burn it?
Though I’m not an advocate of book-burning, I admit to being troubled by Babar. Not only does he seem to forget about his mother almost immediately after her death, it’s pretty clear that buying stuff is how he does it. Then there’s the arresting image of the two “naked” elephant mothers running behind the car as Babar, Arthur, and Celeste return to their home in the forest — why don’t they get to sit, too? Why don’t they get clothes? (Or don’t they want them?) Babar has clearly, to use contemporary critical language, assimilated the values of the oppressor, and thus becomes the next ruler of his people. It’s a neo-colonialist fable.
But here’s where things get complicated. Criticisms like the one I just outlined of books like Babar have been around for years, and whenever they are raised, someone cries foul. Or, more commonly, “PC!” Does it “ruin” a book to note a negative subtext to it? Does it matter what the author intended, or whether a child reading the book will “get” the negative message? The foes of political correctness suggest that such readings are, themselves, poisonous in that they “ruin” the child’s reading experience and raise objections that are often anachronistic, overly politicized, or just plain silly. Thus for every argument that the Little House books present a negative image of Native Americans, there is another that claims they are good, clean, fun — or necessary depictions of the American values of self-help and self-sufficiency. For every objection to the racist depictions in Little Black Sambo, there’s someone else who just remembers loving the pancakes and Sambo’s energetic courage. For every objection to the Nancy Drew books’ implicit racist and heterosexist depictions of teenage life, there’s someone like me who remembers the comptence Nancy projected, and her strong friendships with her female friends.
The thing is, books are complicated objects. When nostalgia and personal connections intersect with intellectual and political critiques, sometimes the book itself is lost. I put my dilemma to my ten-year-old in-house literary critic, Nick. He says he doesn’t think that Europeans are better than Africans, and he’s read Babar hundreds of times. He doesn’t agree, either, that Babar is made a king because “he wears clothes,” as I suggest — he says it’s because Babar is smarter than the other elephants. When I point out that the only evidence for Babar’s intelligence is, still, his familiarity with the human world, he reminds me that humans read books and animals don’t — which does suggest that humans are smarter than animals.
He won’t budge, my determined son. I can’t convince him of my reading of Babar any more than I can convince some of my students. Like them, too, he says, “I never noticed that, so it must not be there.” Of course, we never noticed the additives in our cereals or the hole in our ozone until someone pointed them out to us: could books work the same way? Inculcating us with messages, positive or not, that we can’t identify or trace to their origins, but that are nonetheless powerful?
Those of us who want to believe books can do good in the world must be willing to acknowledge the opposite, that there are harmful and unpleasant messages in books as well. I can live with that — indeed, I’ve built a good part of my career on it. So what to do?
In our case, as always, we talk. I’ve planted some seeds with Nick, even if he’s not convinced at the moment. I will always cherish the moment when I was reading Little Town on the Prairie to Mariah. We’d worked our way through the series, talking about the Indians and the various others the Ingalls family had met, thinking about whose land they lived on while we also enjoyed their adventures. When we got to Little Town, we encountered the Independence Day celebration at which the Declaration is read. Wilder includes the famous text, and Mariah tugged at my sleeve just a few words in. “Why does it say all men are created equal, Mommy? What about the girls?” Critical readers don’t ruin books, they enhance them, deepening both our awareness and our enjoyment.
What is it about Babar that we love? The absurd humor, in my case: the lack of logical connections, the childlike acceptance of new experiences, the visual pleasure of seeing an old lady doing morning exercises with an elephant in gym clothes. Those don’t go away with a recognition of the story’s unfortunate enmeshment in colonialist thought, though they may be qualified. Nick is long past the Babar years, and I can’t say yet if it will be one of the books he remembers fondly later in life. Whether he does or not, though, it’s part of the storehouse of memories he’ll take into adulthood, popping up in odd moments as he contemplates elephants in the zoo, or his first taste of real French pastry. And that’s what makes it, and our other childhood reading, indispensable indeed.