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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
by Jean de Brunhoff
Age Range: 6-8
After their wedding, Babar and his wife, Queen Celeste, go away for their honeymoon on a yellow hot air balloon. The balloon soon gets caught in a violent storm and collapses on a small island but fortunately they are both unhurt. They settle into their new environment, but while Babar goes out exploring, his wife falls asleep and gets captured by the natives who live on the island.
Their misadventure does not end there; After Celeste is rescued by Babar they are abandoned on a small reef by a friendly whale in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, then they are rescued by the captain of a big boat only to be given to a circus animal tamer called Fernando.
Eventually they get back home only to discover that there has been further calamity in their absence. The rhinoceroses have declared war on the elephants as a consequence of a mischievous act committed by their naughty little cousin Arthur against the Rataxes. Babar retaliates and ingeniously disguises his soldiers by painting their tails red and adding an enormous eye on either side of their head. His plan succeeds and he is able to defeat the rhinoceroses and peace is once again restored to Celesteville.
The delightful colour illustrations are typical of the 1930s. A particularly good piece of artwork is that featuring the port where Brunhoff has paid such attention to detail: There are plenty of intricate things going on in this double spread: an ice cream seller, a nurse pushing a pram, an Arab man selling some goods, a horse and carriage and a posh car transporting a group of wealthy people, young children playing with marbles, an old man riding a motorbike as well as someone fishing and another man having his lunch. All these detailed vignettes are a real treat for the curious observer and there are plenty more of these in this book.
Over the years this title has courted some controversy and even been withdrawn in some libraries because of the perceived racism within the book. When Babar and Celeste find themselves on the island Brunhoff describes the inhabitants as ‘canibals’. Today, this term would be unacceptable but in the book’s defence this has to be set against the time in which it was written – it was a very different world where colonialism was still rife and racial equality was a concept and ideal of the future.