By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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"For over seventy years, Babar has been the most famous elephant in the world—and the most controversial," writes author and Cornell English professor Alison Lurie in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. "He has been praised as a benevolent monarch, an ideal parent, and a model of family affection, loyalty, justice, good manners, and civilized living. He has also been damned as a sexist, an elitist, a colonialist, and a racist." And so, Lurie says, Babar "must be more than the ordinary hero of a children's picture book: he must represent important and sometimes contradictory views of both childhood and society."

Babar's world is a paradox of innocence and menace. He rules over "an ideal world, a kind of upper-middle class French Utopia whose capital is literally a heavenly city—as its name, Celesteville, indicates." And yet, the elephants' sworn enemies, the rhinos, dress and behave like the German army of World War I, Lurie says. Laurent de Brunhoff—the son of Babar's creators, Cecile (she died last year at age 99) and Jean de Brunhoff—who perpetuated the series, denies this allegorical connection, saying the rhinos are merely the opposite of Babar's peacefulness, gentleness, and wisdom. But Lurie says the nurses who treat the wounded elephants in The Travels of Babar are wearing "World War I costumes." And she says it's no coincidence that more recent portrayals of the rhinos—those published after the fall of the Berlin Wall—have been more benign and hopeful, at least in regard to the younger rhinos.

Observers have read other geopolitical implications into the de Brunhoffs' tales. In the 1993 Rescue of Babar, the main character suffers what Lurie calls "a midlife crisis"; he travels to an isolated land of pleasure (which Lurie says is a spitting image of San Francisco) and wants to stay. This book came out a few years after Laurent de Brunhoff moved from France to America and married an American.

If you think that kind of heady analysis is enough to spoil an otherwise innocent children's tale, you haven't seen anything yet. Someone—the gall!—published a book entitled Should We Burn Babar?, criticizing the series' supposed antifeminism, racism, colonialism, and glorification of idle luxury. Lurie defends the series against these charges by placing the books in the social context of the early- to mid-20th century, and notes that when Laurent took over the series, he sought to weed out its anachronisms; he was "one of the first children's book artists to make amends and include realistic drawings of black people in his public scenes." Fortunately, Lurie says, recent books on "the legacy of Babar" and "the art of Babar" provide more fitting tributes to this timeless children's character.


From the New York Times :

LONDON* — Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as they call him here, has fallen victim to 21st-century notions in Britain. So far this holiday season he has been tainted by parental fears of sexual abuse, marginalized by corporate misgivings about liability and shoved aside by runaway commercialism (which he helped invent in the first place)—not to mention being accosted by teenage toughs on the street. "It's madness," said James Lovell, the director of a school for Santas run by the Ministry of Fun, a marketing and public relations firm in London that supplies Santas to the stores. The school has been hard hit by the Santa slump this year. Mr. Lovell expects that its enrollment by the end of Christmas will be 300, compared with 600 at the comparable time three years ago. The Santa spirit, typically found thriving in shopping malls and major department stores, has been evicted by the retailers' determination to fill every inch of space with merchandise.

SÃO PAULO, Brazil* - This is a city with nearly 11 million inhabitants and 4.5 million passenger cars, 32,000 taxis and 15,000 buses. Traffic jams more than 100 miles long are not uncommon, and even on an ordinary day, getting from one side of town to the other can take two hours or more. Only one group here in South America's largest city seems immune to those frustrations and delays: the daring army of motorcycle messengers known as "motoboys." Zigzagging among stopped cars, ignoring lane markers, red lights and stop signs, they regularly menace pedestrians and infuriate motorists as they zoom their way down gridlocked streets and highways, armed with the knowledge that without them business would grind to a halt. … The bulk of the motoboy's work involves rushing contracts and other legal documents from one business to another, especially for bank loans. But from car parts to architect's plans, human organs for transplant to passports or pizza, there is almost nothing he cannot or will not deliver.

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