The other night my daughter Elby pulled off of her bookshelf “The Story of Babar ” to read as her bedtime story – a welcome respite from the endless recitations of Knuffle Bunny Too, Leonardo the Terrible Monster and a few Richard Scarry books which have been on an endless loop. Let me preface what I’m about to say with the fact that I’ve read Babar before – it was read to me as a child a few million times but I’d also read through it thirty-five years later with my daughter when she was (according to me) too young to fully appreciate it.
Sorry but Babar is a downright weird story; crazy weird. I don’t know if it makes a lot more sense in French and something sane is lost in translation but I find the book disturbing on a more than one level.
The book opens innocently enough: “In the great forest a little elephant is born. His name is Babar. His mother loves him very much. She rocks him to sleep with her trunk singing softly to him.” A mere two pages later mommy is shot dead by hunters while Babar witness the atrocity from a top her back and then Babar must run from the hunters who turn their guns on him! Kind of more suited for a Quentin Tarentino movie if you ask me. I skipped that part while reading it to Elbs and just said that Babar left home to go on an adventure. Unfortunately more unsavory lessons lay ahead.
Babar scampers off to the big city where he sees lots of new things: automobiles, streets and most impressively to him; finely dressed gentleman. Out of nowhere, an old lady “who’s always been fond of little elephants” intuits that Babar wants some new threads and simply hands over her purse. Um, if this woman isn’t one of the original cougars I don’t know who is. Demi, eat your heart out. Need more proof? Cut to: Babar moving in with her. She cooks him dinner every night while he spends his days taking baths, working out and driving her car around the countryside. I quote: “He goes out for an automobile ride every day. The old lady has given him the car. She gives him whatever he wants.” Seriously? Old lady – newsflash – you are getting played! Tell Babar to get a j-o-b! At night Babar hangs around the old lady's friends in his nice new clothes and regales them with stories about life in the great forest. Wouldn’t that get grating after maybe the first night? And what kind of stories would they be? He wasn’t traveling with the Ringling Brother’s Circus. He was running around with no clothes, pooping everywhere, hanging out with monkeys and munching on leaves. That doesn’t seem entirely scintillating to me. But apparently the old lady and her friends couldn’t get enough.
So this goes on for awhile until out of nowhere Babar’s cousins show up and the very first thing Babar notices is not that his long lost cousins are here but that they aren’t wearing any clothes! Babar’s become a clothing snob! Again, I quote: “Babar kisses them affectionately and hurries off with them to buy them some fine clothes.”
Of course the cousins’ moms come looking for them and Babar decides to go back to the great forest. So the old lady helps him pack his stuff in a gorgeous steamer trunk with a B embossed on the side that she’s obviously given to him. But Babar The User drives off in the old lady’s car and never looks back. Oh, and since there’s not enough room, the moms have to run behind eating the dust. Nice.
Meanwhile, back in the forest, the king of all the elephants eats a bad mushroom and dies a painful death. Cheery! (I prefer to say he wasn’t feeling well that day). Luckily Babar returns just in time to be named the new king since he’s a big city elephant now. But hold on: on the ride back, I guess Babar wasn’t just watching the scenery and moo’ing at cows like normal folk. No, he was busy falling in love with his cousin, Celeste and they’ve gotten engaged. At this point in the story you’d think questions would start arising, but unsuspecting kids just seem to go along with stuff – they’re gullible – exactly the reason you have to explain to them not to ever go off with some strange dude who tries to enlist their help finding his puppy!
The rest of the book is all about Babar’s wedding. I find hearing about other people’s wedding about as interesting as hearing about other people’s bunions so I try to skip through the rest but suffice it to say it ends with Babar and his cousin flying off in a balloon for their honeymoon.
Thanks Jean De Brunhoff, but I think I’m sticking with Mo Willems for the next few years. I’ll take a a pigeon with an unnatural interest in driving buses over an incestuous, greedy elephant any day.