I loved the Babar books when I was a kid, and more recently, I've enjoyed reading them to my niece and nephew. Babar has been in the news lately due to an exhibit of illustrations at the Morgan Library & Museum here in New York. In yesterday's New York Times Arts section, a review of the exhibition brought up some interesting themes that had never really crossed my mind when reading the books:
What does the "very rich Old Lady" see in Babar the elephant? What, for that matter, do we see in him? Something appealing surely, even if we would not follow her example and give him a full purse to go shopping for a suit of a “becoming shade of green...”
Escaping the countryside [Babar] arrives in a great town — like many another picaresque hero — and what is his first real desire? Fine clothes. And clothes are the first things he buys for his young cousins when they come to town....
In “Should We Burn Babar?” the author and educator Herbert Kohl argued that the books are sinister in their celebration of the Old Lady’s idle wealth...
When I'm reading stories to my niece and nephew, they don't always have the patience to hear them read word for word, so I just paraphrase things, especially when I know the story well. I have a feeling I may have said that a "NICE Old Lady" helped Babar, but when you think about it, a lot of the Babar plotline depends on her fabulous wealth!
First she adopts Babar and buys nice clothes for him and his relatives. Then he goes back to the land of the elephants with a car load of clothes and presents for everyone there. They decide to make him King, and then he creates this wonderful new city for the elephants: the utopian Celesteville is built, and as far as I can remember there is no other source of funds but the Old Lady's largesse.
The other interesting financial aspect of the stories, of course, is the whole setup of the elephants' society. Each elephant has a job to do, from the doctor to the sculptor to the gardener to the military commander. They all have neat little identical houses and share in a variety of state-sponsored amusements and educational programs. Babar lives in much greater luxury than the rest, since he's the king. No money seems to change hands, and no one seems dissatisfied with his role in society.
And yes, of course, these are fantasy story books for children, which aren't meant to give real lessons about financial life. Don't forget Babar also manages to do things like ride in cars and department store elevators despite the fact that he is an enormous elephant! But it's funny to think of the possibilities for new Babar books updated for the modern age:
- Babar's Stock Market!
- Babar's Credit Cards!
- The Old Lady Dies: Estate Tax Hit Forces Babar to Cut Back Lavish Royal Budget!
- Babar's Housing Bubble: In Which That Rascal Arthur Becomes a Sub-Prime Mortgage Broker and Celesteville is Overdeveloped!
- Babar's Midlife Crisis: How Will He Pay Three Simultaneous College Tuitions for Pom, Flora and Alexander!