Chris's Reviews > Should We Burn Babar?: Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories

Should We Burn Babar? by Herbert R. Kohl
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Jun 14, 11

bookshelves: essays, freedom-of-speech, literature-criticism-and-essays
Read on June 14, 2011

The first three essays are interesting, even if the second and third essays are somewhat scattered. Also be warned, I discuss Kohl's points which some people will consider spoilers.

I got this book because of the title essay, "Should We Burn Babar?", an essay that tackles the question of suitability of certain classic children books.

I'm torn about the subject and about this book in general, and I think this review is going to be somewhat scattered in thought as well, but here it goes.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that we can always find problems with anything that children read. Take, for instance, the Harry Potter series, which usually gets picked on for its use of magic. If we really approach the books with the critical quality that Kohl brings to Babar, then we must ask the following:

1. Why are the only examples of muggles bad or clueless?

2. Why are there no working women who are also mothers? Or even married?

3. Why are all the central characters white?

4. Why are all the major movers and shakers male?

5. Why witches and wizards? Why not witches and warlocks? Or just simply wizards?

6. How come the two lesser houses are founded by women?

7. Why does Hermoine end up with Ron, especially after how he acted in the last book?

Okay, maybe not that last question, but the first six only touch the surface. And you see my point.

Kohl applies this to Babar to illustrate the problems with classic children's literature.

Kohl does have several good points - there is racism in Babar, there is something wrong with making Native Americans read Little House on the Prairie. Yet, I'm also left with the feeling that Kohl would also disapprove of any book that was any contray in any way to what he sees as universal truths. I was left with the impression that a book that illustrates all rich people or white people as evil would be okay, as would a book that shows all men repressing women, would be acceptable. But aren't these types of absolutes just as dangerous as those racist and sexist attitudes that we condemn in older works? Bill Gates is privilged, but he does good.

Kohl also seems to want the books to tell the truth about history and, paradoxically, whitewash it at the same time. Therefore, books that protray Coloumbus in a totally good light are bad, but so is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it has the "n word". In some ways, Kohl seems to want to re-invent such literature and remove anything that isn't morally right, despite that time period the work was written in. To disregard Finn because of the N word is also completely neglecting the fact that the book is about slavery and changing perceptions. It takes Finn down the road that Uncle Tom's Cabin has traveled.

This conflict illustrates the eternal problem about this suitability question - who should be the judge?

Kohl does make an argument for what he terms radical children's literature. What stops the essay from being totally good are a few things. First, and most obivious, is that one of the examples he includes of radical literature is a story that Kohl himself is working on. And its boring. Second is the fact that of the four examples he uses (outside of his), only one of which has a female character. That book, A Chair for My Mother, is a wonderful book, but considering it has women in somewhat traditional roles, I'm not sure if I would call it completely "radical". The first two examples he uses protray men as actice, but it is unclear if there are any women in the novels. This is compounded by the third problem - the fact that his defination of radical children's literure doesn't seem very clear - stories where people rebel aganist society but also seem to conform (my words) to a community. I found it interesting in this section, where he starts the discussion by mentioning Young Adult books, that he doesn't mention Robin McKinley, whose retellings of fairy tales and use of motifs fit his defination; or Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose Darkover series has an overwhelming theme of society rights versus the rights of the individual. It's true that Darkover is adult, but soome of the books, like Hawkmistress! are YA.

I also find one of central claims had to fully believe. I read both Babar and the Little House Series as a child. While I remember them with a degree of fondness, I don't strongly remember images from them. I strongly remember images from the Black Stallion series, Caddie Woodlawn, the Moomintrolls, and Astrid Lindgren far better. It is strange too, that Lindgren and Judy Blume don't get a mention - Blume fits his idea of radical children's literature. In fact, I remember Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears: A West African Tale far better than I remember Babar. I think in some ways, Kohl makes a generalization and sells a significent number of children short.

Kohl's essay about Pinocchio is interesting, but I was left wondering if he read Kate Crackernuts to the class to balance out what he says is the sexism in Pinocchio. Or is Kate inapporiate because she gets married at the end?

I found Kohl's reminding essays to be scattered, drawn out, and boring.

Kohl seems conflicted and his essays at times do seem confused, most likely because of his interanl conflict. But at the very least, he does get the reader to think about how to get children to think about what they read (or hear) and what children should read (in school at least). What he doesn't do is provide anything in the way of a hard solution or answer. Should stories be balanced? Should Charles Perrault be balanced with any of Angela Carter's folklore collections? Or are both books the wrong ones?

At one point, Kohl hints that solution might be in revising the classics, perhaps removing any objection language or ideas. This is hardly new. Anicent Greeks redid the story of Ipenghia. Shakespeare has been rewritten more time than I can count (see Shakespeare Made Fit: Restoration Adaptations of Shakespeare (Everyman's Library). In some ways, however, whitewashing also does the work a disservice because it presents the past as rewritable. Shakespeare, for instance, being the only one of his generation who wasn't anti-Semnitic and who was a feminist before the term was invented. Does anyone really believe such a claim? Perhaps Shakespeare was just kissing up to the boss lady? This solution seems overly simplistic and just as dangerous to children. Kohl's example of questions seems the best way to go.
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Gundula (new) - added it

Gundula Excellent review, Chris; need to read this.


message 2: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Superb and thoughtful review!


Chris Thank you.


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

This book seems like a bit of a mess. I bridle automatically at redactions of kiddie lit. I haven't done an exhaustive study or anything, but for every edition of Huck Finn that removes the n word, there are a hundred editions of classic kids books that are edited to remove the "big words." Seriously, go to your local bookseller and try to find an unabridged Wind in the Willows. As you point out, let's give kids a little credit. (And my kids were only interested in the poison mushroom in Babar, and have since lost interest.)


message 5: by Gundula (new) - added it

Gundula Ceridwen wrote: "This book seems like a bit of a mess. I bridle automatically at redactions of kiddie lit. I haven't done an exhaustive study or anything, but for every edition of Huck Finn that removes the n word,..."

Good point, actually even the title rubs me the wrong way. It's funny, poison mushrooms are a huge deal with some North American publishers and/or critics of European children's literature. Case in point, in the original Pippi Longstocking, Pippi eats a poisonous fly agaric. In one of the British translations, she still eats a "toadstool" but in a more recent American translation, the fly agaric has been changed to a generic mushroom, sigh.


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

It's just totally weird what people feel the need to edit out sometimes. It's like renaming the Turkish delight in the Narnia books because kids might not "get it."


message 7: by Gundula (new) - added it

Gundula Ceridwen wrote: "It's just totally weird what people feel the need to edit out sometimes. It's like renaming the Turkish delight in the Narnia books because kids might not "get it.""

It drives me batty and at times it completely changes the story. We give kids far too little credit and try to shield them and mold them.


message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

I don't mind molding kids, I mind mollycoddling them. Especially in situations where it seems people assume children are stupid.

I don't know. I am bothered by the racism and sexism in a lots of these "classics", so I replace them with other stories completely. I don't know that watering them down will result in anything worth reading.


message 9: by Gundula (new) - added it

Gundula Ceridwen wrote: "I don't mind molding kids, I mind mollycoddling them. Especially in situations where it seems people assume children are stupid.

I don't know. I am bothered by the racism and sexism in a lots of ..."


Also, watering racist stories down could so easily give a false sense of what society was like and children/students might think, "Oh, but it really wasn't so bad after all." This would be or could be even more dangerous, because it has the potential to change the perception of history. It also takes away potential teaching moments.


Chris Extactly. I don't have kids and I teach adults, so what do I know, but to water anything down, to change it so the kids aren't tempted to look up the word is so stupid. They did it with Harry Potter to, at least in the early ones. They stuck more British terms in the later books, but still there's something not right about.

Maybe it's because I was allowed to read what I wanted when I wanted, but if you want a child to develop as a reader, trust the child, challenge the child. Don't talk down to the child.


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