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The French are a direct people.

One of the perks I had access to as a child attending a magnet school in the otherwise questionable Chicago Public School system of the '80s was early foreign language. My parents were able to choose from French, German, Spanish, and Japanese. Mine chose French. From kindergarten through sixth grade, French class was simply part of my school day. When we moved to another state in junior high, I thought it was really odd that nobody else I met had ever taken French: wasn't it just part of school? What kind of crazy non-French-class-offering world had we moved to?? The great thing about these early classes is that I didn't just learn basic vocabulary, numbers, and verb conjugation; we read children's books by French authors, made crepes, sang traditional French songs (Alouette, anyone??), and celebrated Mardi Gras.

One of the book series that I always loved was the one about Babar the Elephant. I actually think I'd read the books outside of my French class, but we read them there too, and with the good associations I had with the class, I must have placed Babar on some crazy pedestal. Recently I was on Amazon looking for Curious George books, and somehow ran across this blast from the past. I was thrilled: "Oh, Babar! How could I have forgotten about sweet, cool, culturally-aware Babar the Elephant? I must introduce my kids to him!" I ordered two books, the one explaining how Babar became so human-like and the one about his world travels. They arrived earlier this week and I sat down with Bryce to read them last night. I was probably anticipating as eagerly as he was, considering the fact that once I thought about it, I really didn't remember the actual story of Babar at all.

Imagine my surprise when on the second page, Babar's mother is killed by a hunter. Not only that, but the hunter is shown shooting a gun, and Babar's mother is shown lying dead at her son's feet. It's okay, though!! My eagle eyes caught the "killed" in time for me to switch to "hurt" (because my son is obviously an idiot and won't catch on, you know) and quickly turned the page to move on to the REAL significance in Babar's life: meeting the rich old woman who "gives him whatever he wants" - items including "fancy clothes", cars, and apparently a mansion in which to live his new half-human, half-elephant life of luxury. Bryce wasn't going for any of it, though. The second I turned the page to talk about how Babar ran away from the hunter and found the nice old elephant-enamored lady to give him money, he said, "But mom! He needs to tell someone that the hunter hurt his mother!" My quick thinking skills that had SO CLEARLY NOT HELPED ME AT ALL, now utterly failed me and I just kind of looked at him blankly. (As Catherine Newman would say, "Blink. Blink blink.") Then I kept reading. Babar's elephant cousins show up in town, and he uses more of the old lady's money to buy them lots of fancy clothes, too. Bryce interrupted again: "Is he going to tell them about his mom? Where is the hunter?" I kept thinking something, anything would distract Bryce from that detail about the hunter, but no. I NEVER LEARN. Babar's reunion with his cousins makes him want to return to the forest where he grew up; he misses the rest of his extended elephant family. In the scene where the elephants have a huge forest party with Babar and the cousins, the book is almost over, and I thought I could breathe a sigh of relief, that maybe Bryce had moved on from the obsession about the hunter. He looked at the picture of all of the joyful elephants dancing and welcoming with open arms the addition of capitalism into their formerly primitive, naturalistic lives, and I thought he would point out how happily they were celebrating Babar's marriage to his cousin Celeste and also their lovely, costly wedding garb. Instead he said, "Is the hunter going to shoot all of them, too?"

Zut Alors!

I had forgotten how direct and sometimes painfully honest French art can be. It really should have come as no surprise to me that Babar's mother would be callously killed off in the first two pages, or that the elephant king would die a shriveled, green lump after ingesting poisonous mushrooms immediatley prior to Babar's return to the forest. This is the same culture that gave us a song about plucking a bird's feathers for pleasure, after all.