I was in Paris once, for five days, with my mother. I took Spanish in school, after a long discussion of the relative merits of French and Spanish in a Chinese restaurant with my parents when I was eight. (We got foreign languages in public elementary school in those years.) Finally I flipped a coin. I did pass my French reading exam in graduate school, but mainly because I am the queen of cognates and also because I pleaded with the professor who graded the exam. Also in graduate school, I learned to pretentiously over-pronounce French words. We used to laugh about professors doing that when I was in college ("fon fon fon!") but I didn't get the hang of it myself until my second semester in a PhD program.
I realized that many of my fond images of Paris come from the book Babar Loses His Crown by Laurent de Brunhoff. My parents dug out a bunch of my old children's books from the basement for my son, and Babar was hands down his absolute favorite. I didn't blame him. Reading the page with the picture of the elephants on a train, "'I will show you everything', Babar said. 'You will love Paris.'" My son is in a phase of both repeating any interesting two or three word phrase or polysyllabic word that catches his ear, and of completing sentences in books he has heard read more than once. In the Babar book, he was captivated by the Eiffel Tower, by Arthur standing in the sun to dry his clothes, and by Zephir knocking over a box of live fish in the market.
Babar Loses His Crown is set in a most beautiful Paris. My husband and I are fantasizing about going with our son and our yoga teacher (who used to live in Paris) for a visit. Couldn't we help her arrange to teach yoga there, and eat macrobiotic food with her? We could go along as, uh, journalists. Yeah, that's it! Also there is a Babar and yoga connection. Our teacher has a Babar yoga poster on the fridge in her studio where we take classes with her.
But I'm not sure whether we should actually read any more Babar books together. I know I'm not the only one worrying about this. Herbert Kohl has written an essay deploring the values in Babar. I read Alison Lurie's long review of Babar in the New York Review of Books. She summarizes Kohl's argument and doesn't exactly dismiss it, but kind of mutes Kohl's and Ariel Dorfman's critique of Babar by showing Laurent de Brunhoff's remorse for the racism in his first contribution to the series. Laurent was the son of Jean de Brunhoff, who wrote the first Babar stories, including the initial book in which a hunter kills Babar's mother. (Lurie also mentions that Jean de Brunhoff's brother was the editor of French Vogue, which makes a lot of sense to me!) Lurie seems to be pardoning Laurent for the problems of the early books. But she doesn't really address Kohl's criticisms that Babar is rich without working, that he imposes colonial values on his elephant kingdom, etc. Lurie does have a strong analysis of the role of clothing in that imposition of human values, where human means French cultural values. It is funny to see Babar and his family eating pommes frites and drinking wine at a sidewalk cafe.
You could use the same logic to critique Richard Scarry, and I suppose a score of other children's books in which animals appear in clothing and eat human food (Pigs eating bacon, how disgusting, how White Album, how treif.)
On the other hand, there is another side to reading Babar. After all, this was my special book from childhood. There is some value in just reading the same books, either across geography or across a generational divide. Books defeating time and space. Movingly to me, the Deaf children in Nicaragua who invented their own sign language used Babar as one of their foundational stories.
Aleman learned Nicaraguan Sign Language at 15, a relatively late age. Intelligence and hard work, however, have enabled him to master the idiom with almost total fluency. "I couldn't learn the language earlier," he signs, "because I grew up in the forest. It was during the war, too, and since my father was a contra, we were always hiding, being hunted down by Sandinistas. So I remember guns, fear, hiding. When I came to Bluefields I was amazed. I was like" -- he pauses for a moment -- Babar in the big city going in the elevator for the first time."
I remembered reading this article when it first appeared in the New York Times Magazine and thinking, "Oh, there is a shared canon of children's literature." It's ironic that Kohl has an essay against Babar when he was one of the first hearing educators to advocate for US Deaf children to learn at school in ASL. Here's how Ariel Dorfman dealt with this issue:
Soon after we began to talk, he launched into a critique of Babar, the French elephant whose adventures were chronicled for children by Jean de Brunhoff. I was particularly interested because de Brunhoff's books had been icons of my childhood.
Ariel described vividly the way de Brunhoff in his elegant, oversized picture books had tortured history into the shape of a colonial tale that fit well with the French imperial mission civilatrice. He was dazzling and convincing. And yet, as I listened, I felt a certain sadness. Who, after all, could look at de Brunhoff's monkey village with its shops and restaurants hanging like little submarines from the trees, or the mermaids who inhabited his offshore islands, or those vast painted elephant butts, which unforgettably sent a whole army of terrified Rhinos into retreat, without mourning the fact that these might now be exiled from the child's world?
Finally, I asked hesitantly, "So what do you do with your sons and Babar?" He looked at me with astonishment -- because Ariel is a bit larger than life, he did a genuine double take -- and then responded as if this were the only conceivable answer in our world or any other, "I read Babar to them." Believe me, you recognize sanity when it stares you in the face; you recognize the kind of impurity that makes a decent world possible, that makes life worth the bother.
Anyway, Kohl thinks you can teach children to read critically by age three or four. I don't know if that's critical reading or just indoctrination. Or communicating your values, which is a more positive way to say it. Hope you can pull some interesting thoughts out of these musings, and the ones that will surely follow on other children's books. I have definitely
indoctrinated communicated my values about reading to my son!