Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 23, 2008

Babar: Biting Your Tongue While Reading Aloud

Have you ever read a book to a small one you loved that made you squirm? Did you re-shelve that book, or hide it? Talk with the child about what made you grit your teeth?

In a class I teach at UMass, one student just did a presentation about Babar, not as an innocent elephant in green suit and spiffy shoes and hat, but as emblem of empire, a pawn for one country trying to take over another. She based her talk on others’ research, and most of her points have been made before, but they were new to the students in the class. Babar’s mother gets shot by a white hunter, but as we zip to the next page, all is forgiven, and he meets a rich white lady in Paris who gives him clothes and an education. Soon Babar is back in the forest, bringing back chests and trunks and doling out clothes, which other elephants don and then walk on two legs instead of four. Besides the western-ways-are-good, Africa-is-backwards theme, there’s sexism as seen by Babar being named king then choosing Celeste as wife: she never gets a say. After the talk, a student who grew up in Ghana wrote that he was horrified that such things were read to children. His voice, of course, went a long way with me.

After the presentation, another student wrote that she wondered whether being read Babar as a child had made her as materialistic as she is today. Let me say, this is a lovely young woman who gave her report on ways people are trying to balance ecology with the economy in Kenya. I can’t quite believe there’s such cause and effect, and I’m not convinced that being a mouthpiece for colonialism was the intent of Jean or his son Laurent DeBrunhoff.

But if one reader is going to feel a decent way of life is being undermined by a story, well, there are a lot of other books to read.

In other let’s-shatter-your-pretty-memory moments, (endemic to teaching children’s lit, though that’s not the subject of this class) another student reported on animal stereotypes in Disney’s Lion King. Some of the focus was on hyenas; Laurence Frank . a wildlife biologist and some who worked with him were asked to assist the animators. When they begged for hyenas not to be the villains, but to be shown more realistically, as predators who clean up messes lions make, for instance, they were told that the characters were already written, sorry, but please just let us know how they look and move.



  1. When I read Dr. Doolittle, I had that same feeling. I’m not sure I ever did read it as a kid. Some of that stuff is just so….well, you know.
    The interesting thing, though, was that my copy had a foreward by the author’s son, where he explained the whole process/discussion that he and the publishers had about the racism in the book. He talked a lot about how his father would have been saddened, not by the fact that people read his writing that way, but by the fact that he had written something that, years later, WAS racist. I’m not saying it the same way he did; I’m definitely being more judgmental, but the feeling was there–that the author was a kind, loving person.
    I wondered what to do about it when we listened to the audio book (INCREDIBLY read by Martin Short) with my son, who was then pretty young. I decided to let the book stand as it was. Still, that discomfort was in my stomach the whole time I was reading it.
    It’s a choice for all of us to make, but we can only go with what we decide for any given book.

  2. Becky — shouldn’t you be packing? But thanks for writing! That is interesting re Hugh Lofting and his son, and how Dr. Doolittle has been changed. Most of my students knew it only through the Eddie Murphy movie, not the book, so were shocked to hear of racism in it. Some thngs are just mixed and we do queasily read literature in which we find both love and racism. Jane Goodall, who must be one of the kindest and wisest people on the planet, grew up on Dr. Doolittle.

  3. Gah – Disney is notorious for showcasing things ass-backwards. You think they would have researched more before writing the characters in the first place.
    You know… they could have not had the hyenas be villians but rather simply being manipulated by Scar. That wouldn’t have even necessarily changed the story that much.
    It’s similar to what they did with the Pocahontas story. She never willingly had anything happen to her in her life. She was used as a sort of barter for peace. In reality her story is really very sad. She was a child of only ten years old, taken away from her home and stripped of her culture in a time where women were treated as objects on a regular basis. I wrote an entry addressing the media’s inaccurate tellings of stories and events a while back here.
    There is a lot of speculation about whether John Smith told the truth at all. He didn’t record any of these events until much later after experiencing them and there is suspicion he made up things to be “popular” in a sense. According to in his writings it says :
    “Smith relates that at their meeting, she was at first too overcome with emotion to speak. After composing herself, Pocahontas talked of old times. At one point she addressed him as “father,” and when he objected, she defiantly replied: “‘Were you not afraid to come into my father’s Countrie, and caused feare in him and all of his people and feare you here I should call you father: I tell you I will, and you shall call mee childe, and so I will be for ever and ever your Countrieman.'” This was their last meeting.” Refuting this writing, reports that “It was recorded that on one occasion when she encountered John Smith (who was also in London at the time), she was so furious with him that she turned her back to him, hid her face, and went off by herself for several hours. Later, in a second encounter, she called him a liar and showed him the door.”
    I’ve found a lot of sources which believe Smith may have been lying about a lot of his encounters with Pocahontas. One of which Smith stated that he was rescued by Pocahontas when her Father tried to kill him. According to Smith was known to tell tall tales:”The truth of the matter is that the first time John Smith told the story about this rescue was 17 years after it happened, and it was but one of three reported by the pretentious Smith that he was saved from death by a prominent woman. Yet in an account Smith wrote after his winter stay with Powhatan’s people, he never mentioned such an incident. In fact, the starving adventurer reported he had been kept comfortable and treated in a friendly fashion as an honored guest of Powhatan and Powhatan’s brothers. ”
    The more I read about her life, the more I am finding myself coming to the conclusion that she was thrown into a lot of situations which her destiny was being dictated to her. tells that “A general peace and a spirit of goodwill between the English and the Indians resulted” from her marriage to Rolfe, and that her Father gave the ok on it. I wonder how much of her spirit was beaten down, and how much her actions were really just done to create a type of peace, being dictated to her by her Father and Rolfe.
    Bee movie is another movie that inaccurately displays the bee’s culture, which is in fact quite interesting. The female bees vastly outnumber the male bees, while in this movie there are FAR FAR more males than females. Males don’t have stingers and honey bees are not yellow! Honey bees are brown with black stripes. You can read a short article about the inaccuracies in this movie as well as quickly learn some things about bees here. They clearly feel a movie about working women would just not be interesting or appealing, regardless that it’s a fact for a bee society. I can’t help but have that trickle under my skin a bit considering the sexism it’s steeped in.
    They did a similar thing in another movie where all the cows were men… cows… not bulls. D:

  4. Can’t this be said for TONS of “old” books?
    Grimm Fairy tales, etc.?
    Disney is a constant target for negative-female roles…. evil step-mothers, evil sisters, witches….
    I remember reading “Little Black Sambo” as a child. And living in the lily-white town in the sixties… I do recollect my most vivid memory from that story is how Sambo out smarted the tigers and was able to feed his family tiger-striped pancakes. (Who knew tigers were made out of batter?) So, in a sense, I came away with a very positive feeling of how clever Sambo was…

  5. Oh, my gosh, there’s some devastating news here (that Bee stuff is too much, and what IS that cow movie?) but you are brilliant, brilliant, and I’m so happy you’re around to change the world!

  6. Yeah, you’re right, most old books come to us as mixed bag, and somehow, we survived.. able to go with the good and to say, as you do, “But….” At least now we have some clever new editions of Sambo to read and still get the pancakes.

  7. hahah – Thanks 😛
    The movie was called Barnyard. There is a trailer here:
    It came out… I think last summer. I was pretty annoyed that they made all these cows male! I mean come on! This isn’t even something most people wouldn’t know!
    The thing that really sparked my interest in stuff like this was just that there really are so many people who are gathering the wrong information from pop culture. A lot of people remember “learning” something somewhere and don’t even remember where it came from. Then we get kids growing up with misinformation. I feel that it’s especially destructive when it’s in children’s entertainment.

  8. “Somehow we survived”
    A while back I wrote a paper about Barbie’s influence on children. I basically concluded that how you interpret most things as a child has to do with the surroundings and influences you grow up in. So… sometimes even if something may possibly be trying to send a bad message, like the Babar books, you take what is relevant to you as a child and move from there.
    Barbie maybe was advertised years ago as a bimbo who just wants boyfriends, but I actually wrote that I found Barbie not to be as terrible an influence as people say.
    When I played with Barbie she was a single woman, working various jobs I wanted her to have, owning a car and house and going out with her friends. Even if that wasn’t what the media might have been telling me about Barbie, it didn’t matter. Barbie was whoever I wanted Barbie to be. (Also they do make Barbie the doctor and Barbie the postal worker as well as Barbie the Babysitter!) I just want to add: What’s wrong with being a mother! Why is it so terrible if what someone wants is to be a mother and have a family? Sometimes I get the feeling that the concept of a woman staying home and taking care of children is viewed as degrading and below her. A woman shouldn’t be forced into only this lifestyle, but if it is what she wants she should be able to choose it. Feminism isn’t all about being a working woman. Feminism is about being able to choose your own lifestyle freely, and not being held down from doing what you want to do.
    I know people get upset about how Barbie has crazy proportions; but of all the things in my life that ever made me feel like maybe the way I looked wasn’t awesome, the last thing it would have been was Barbie. I see cartoon characters with impossible proportions all the time too. It didn’t mean I had a desire to look like them either.
    I suppose this comes down to how stubborn or strong willed that child is as well. 😛
    I think some things only have an impact on a child when the situation they are in is putting pressure on the issue anyway. If you gave a child in Africa Barbar it would be more relevant to their situation. Children in America read Babar before they really understand the concept of colonization because it’s not happening to them. Once we get older and understand the ways of the world more throughly, we ask ourselves the appropriateness of it.
    Although fairy tales and the like all push the concept that the woman’s goal in life if to find true love in order to find true happiness. She’s needs this man to be fulfilled. While the men are all out fighting dragons and being awesome. They stumble upon true love and it expand their happiness. It doesn’t define it. I wonder how much that influences young girls.
    Anyway- I think a lot of the time the reason we survive bad influences from childhood movies, toys and games is all based on the morals our own parents set upon us. As a child we often miss the bad message or overlook it. As a kid I remember being appalled when I realized there were people who hated other people because of the color of their skin. Other children grow up with parents who instill that hate.
    If one’s parents lets the media teach their children, that’s just what they’ll get: pawns of propaganda and advertising.
    In a nutshell: parents are a huge influence; if they are only floating in a child’s life, everything else begins to teach them.
    Oh dear. I am really taking up this thread today!

  9. Re: “Somehow we survived”
    Yeah, aren’t you supposed to be getting ready to graduate or something, not writing your thesis in my blog? But I’m thrilled to hear your thoughts, especially as I can remember sitting on the floor with you those weirdly proportioned Barbies many years ago. I never did think you’d go all warped, but how wonderful to witness the many changes. You’re not plastic, you’re not tiny, and even if you were (and so glad you’re not) you’d be prettier than Barbie.

  10. Re: “Somehow we survived”
    The only thing to cause you worry was perhaps our constant dressing up of ninja turtles and Indiana Jones (and whatever else…) action figures. Splinter in a dress could give any parents nightmares. I know our daddies weren’t too pleased!

  11. Re: “Somehow we survived”
    haha aww thanks Jeannine!
    Actually I’m just waiting for graduation now! Wee! I’m all done! 😀
    I was freaking out and staying up til 1AM every night for a few weeks but it’s all over now. 😛

  12. Re: “Somehow we survived”
    That’s not normal? xo

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