Burn, Babar, burn?

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In 2004 the Morgan Library & Museum in New York acquired the working drafts and printer-ready watercolors for "Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant," the first book by Jean de Brunhoff, published in 1931, and "Babar et ce coquin d'Arthur," the first book by his son, Laurent de Brunhoff, published in 1946.  On Friday, the Morgan put these two collections on display – shown, as the Morgan says, "virtually in their entirety for the first time" – along with copies of first editions of the earliest Babar books.

The show, which is called "Drawing Babar," runs at the Morgan from Sept. 19, 2008 through Jan. 4, 2009.

Most of us remember Babar as a precious icon of childhood but today there are those who see darker shadows surrounding the beloved old pachyderm. Adam Gopnik writes in last week's New Yorker magazine of a new controversy surrounding Babar: the contention that his story is an allegory of some of the uglier aspects of colonialism.

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It brings to mind last year's Tintin controversy when Borders stores in the UK and the US moved copies of "Tintin in the Congo," published in 1931, out of their children's book sections and onto shelves of graphic novels due to customer protests.

For years the Tintin books by Hergé (Georges Remi) and their tales of Belgian boy reporter Tintin and his dog, Snowy, have provided American high school students with some of the happiest moments of French class. But "Tintin in the Congo" (the second of 23 Tintin books) is jarring by today's standards and reflects a colonial mentality few would care to introduce into a classroom. (Not too mention some ugly instances of violence toward animals.)

The book's US publisher, Little, Brown, agreed that the story “may be considered somewhat controversial, as it reflects the colonial attitudes of the time it was created."

When it comes to Babar, however, Gopnik argues that he sees the “Babar” books as a fable of the difficulties of a bourgeois life and not an allegory of colonialism.

Let's hope that the intellectual community at large adopts such a conclusion. Because the question Gopnik raises is an alarming one: faut-il brûler Babar? (“Must we burn Babar?”) Might this not be a case of throwing the Babar out with the bath water?

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