Babar, Celeste, Cannibals, and Death

The Censor Mommy Strikes.

I have a beef with Babar. Specifically Jean de Brunhoff’s, “The Story of Babar, The Little Elephant,” and later, “The Travels of Babar.” In the former, this page raised some concerns:

[Insert photo of the elephant king turning green and looking all sick & wrinkly. I had an actual image of this before, but just read something about a blogger getting sued for copyright issues. Copyright paranoia, c’est moi.]

The next lines of text say, “It poisoned him and he became ill, so ill that he died. This was a great calamity.”

When he’s “sick,” the elephant king turns green, and then Babar shows up on the next page, wearing a green jacket, so Z thinks the king comes back to life again. She’s had some questions about it, and it’s been a little difficult for us to decide what to tell her without freaking her out too much. It’s a teaching moment, we recognize that. But how much to teach?

One of her questions was, “If I die, will I be alive again?” (like the elephant king, I think) and we said, yes, she’ll be alive with God. She asked if it hurt, and we said that God would take care of her. Those are both things that we believe, and we kind of glossed over the hurting bit, because she’s already worried enough about every little scrape and fever. And remember, she just turned three.

I think we did the right thing, not going into too much detail, but answering calmly. I just think she’s a little young to be thinking about death, that’s all. Maybe I’m not right about this, but it’s how I feel.

Then we took that Babar book and put it away! It’ll come out later. I don’t know when. Like so many things with this parenting gig, we’re wingin’ it.

Another book on the Censor Shelf is “The Travels of Babar.”  Some “fierce and savage cannibals” tie up Celeste and hope to eat her. They’re depicted as dark-skinned men wearing little grass skirts, and as I have yet to see a positive depiction of dark-skinned people in any of the Babar books, this story will also wait until Z is old enough for us to discuss how people talk about and write about people of other races.

[Insert photo of dark people in grass skirts, holding spears, dancing around the tied-up elephant royalty. See above re: copyright paranoia.]

I loved Babar when I was a little kid, and I still love Babar. Luckily for Z, Husband’s Babar collection is at least ten books strong, so the disappearance of two or three books will by no means give her a Babar-less life.

If you have kids, are there any books you put away to read and discuss when they’re older?


  1. thegracefuldoe · August 10, 2011

    I think that’s the thing with older books, they’re not as politically correct as modern books (and often don’t tone the violence either). Back when those books were written that was the common perception of people of colour and they were often portrayed in savage roles. When thinking about reading my child a much older picture book I’ll often flick through it first to make sure it’s appropriate.

    I agree the death issue is a tricky one and I think you handled it well. Master H has just recently started including death in his games eg: ‘I’ll kill the dragon. Now he’s dead.’ It’s something he’s picked up from kindergarten and I’m not sure he really understands the concept. We did have a pet goat die not long ago and had to explain to him it was gone. He came up with his own theory on death which was actually quite poetic.

    • Beth Hull · August 10, 2011

      Jo, what was Master H’s poetic theory, if you don’t mind sharing?

  2. Molly · August 10, 2011

    I censor “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly” because every page repeats the speculation,”perhaps she’ll die” (until a successful operation ends the story). I’m not sure why I concern myself with the “perhaps she’ll die” part when really I should probably be more troubled by this woman’s unrestrained ingestion of live animals.

    • Beth Hull · August 10, 2011

      Molly, that’s hilarious. I’d forgotten about that one. I’m glad I’m not the only one censoring death. I know it’ll need to come up…I just hope not for a little while longer at least.

      How about changing the lyrics to, “Perhaps she’ll cry?” That could help show her remorse at having ingested all those live animals!

  3. readingisdelicious · August 10, 2011

    The picture of the elephant king turning green and dying always freaked me out!

    • Beth Hull · August 10, 2011

      I know! Poor guy. And it’s just a terrible calamity. But no one’s really sad about it or anything.

      I don’t remember this story. I probably had it read to me when I was little, but maybe my mom censored the death, too? I’ll have to ask her.

  4. Vicki · August 14, 2011

    I censor the original Curious George book – the guy steals him out of the jungle and George does NOT want to go with the Man in the Yellow Hat. In the movie version George gets high – seriously – from smoking a pipe & does wacky things after smoking it. Seriously!!!

    I also censor books where there isn’t anything obviously redeeming in it. I’ve only found a few so far (from the library) but they’re out there – really mean-spirited characters, for example or themes that are go a little too far on the “fantasy” spectrum. I can handle witches during Halloween but my kid doesn’t need to be hearing about potions & spells to do things to others, etc.

    And yes, I’ve always thought that original Babar book was a bit weird, myself 🙂

    • Beth Hull · August 14, 2011

      Yeah, I totally hate the original Curious George. It’s so sad how he gets taken from the jungle!

      And I guess we won’t be seeing the movie. Seriously? Pipe-smoking?

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