The Story of Babar
The Little Elephant

by Jean de Brunhoff

Jean de Brunhoff's The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 4-8

The first thing this reader-writer noticed about The Story of Babar in re-reading it as an adult was the present tense and the prominent use of the passive voice.

(Babar is translated from the original French by Merle S. Haas. I don't speak French, but I'm going to guess that the original text is in the passive voice as well.)

What is the passive voice (and why should you care)? Well, here's a taste of it:

In the great forest a little elephant is born. His name is Babar.

Here's how a modern writer would likely have tackled those lines:

One day, in the great forest, a mother elephant gave birth to a baby. She named him Babar.

The active voice relies on "action" verbs. Note how the word "is" is replaced with "gave birth" and "named." And note how the past tense replaces the present.

Even children in elementary school are taught to use the active voice, as if the other way were simply wrong. And the past tense is usually preferred because...well, simply because.

Well, in Babar, I found these old usages refreshing. There's nothing grammatically incorrect about them, and they have the effect of immersing us in the story.

Babar just is. The story is happening now, right in front of us.

And a dramatic story it is. By page six, Babar's mother is shot by a "wicked" hunter as he rides on her back. The hunter tries to catch Babar - anyone picking up whiffs of Bambi and Curious George? - but Babar a city.

cropped image, background color added

Unlike George, Babar becomes a citizen, rather than an odd pet. Taken in by an "Old Lady" (a rich old lady) he develops human ways, and much of the joy of The Story of Babar is seeing the little big gray guy in action - wearing fine clothes, eating fine meals, driving a fine automobile.

But Babar misses the great forest and his mother, so he feels great joy when he spots two old young elephant friends cavorting in a city park.

He dresses them and teaches them his new, human, citified ways. But when their angry mothers come to fetch them, Babar decides to go home with them.

The Story of Babar has been criticized for its colonialist undertones. When Babar returns to the forest, he is crowned King of the Elephants, presumably because of his knowledge of more worldly ways. (The previous king has just died, conveniently, due to a bad mushroom.) While the other elephants remain naked, Babar and his new bride continue to wear clothes among their less cultured brethren.

In this reviewer's opinion, there's no reason to protect children from such vague, politically incorrect undertones. Instead, use them as teachable moments. A picture book becomes infinitely more valuable when it's used to pose questions and initiate discussions.

"Why do YOU think Babar keeps wearing clothes? Why do YOU think the other elephants want Babar to be King?"

Author de Brunhoff was also a wonderful illustrator. Babar couldn't look more comfortable in those clothes, and we're treated to a variety of forest creatures beyond elephants as well.

The Story of Babar is a delight and precisely the right place to start in deciding whether you want to read more Babar books (or follow his movie and tv career).

More classic children's literature.

Read more of Steve's reviews.

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