22 September 2008

The Little French Elephant

Adam Gopnik wrote an appreciation of the Babar books in the New Yorker, on the occasion of an exhibit of Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff's illustrations at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. That article is happy evidence that I'm not the only reader who spots national portraits in children's literature. (Of course, Gopnik's own children's fantasy novel, The King in the Window, was de trop about Frenchness.)

Gopnik writes:

All children’s books take as their subject disorder and order and their proper relation, beginning in order and ending there, but with disorder given its due. In our century, different ideas of order have been represented in children’s literature by a city or a country.

The Mary Poppins stories, “Peter Pan,” “The Wind in the Willows,” and, in a slightly different way, “The Hobbit” all use an idea of England and, often, of London. Here order is internal, found at home, part of the natural world of the nursery and the riverbank; disorder lies beyond, at times threatening but more often beckoning as a source of joy and Dionysian possibility. . . . We escape the nursery for the disorder of the park.

The idea of Paris that one finds in the Babar books--or in the Madeline books--has another shape. Disorder is imagined as internal, psychological; the natural world is accepted as inherently coquin, “mean,” or potentially violent. Order needs to be created by constant infusions of education and city planning; it is a source of Apollonian pleasure. . . . Disorder is the normal mess of life, what rhinos like. Order is what elephants (that is, Frenchmen) achieve at a cost and with effort. To stray from built order is to confront the man with a gun.

Things are sorted differently in the children’s classics of New York. In “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” “The House on East 88th Street,” “Stuart Little,” “The Pushcart War,” and “Harriet the Spy,” neither order nor disorder is taken to be natural. The world of the books oscillates unpredictably between them, producing battles and freaks. The best we can find are small secret islands of order. Everything turns on the individual child and her ability to create a safe miniworld of her own within the big chaotic city.

In London, in children’s books, life is too orderly and one longs for the vitality of the wild; in Paris, order is an achievement, hard won against the natural chaos and cruelty of adult life; in New York, we begin most stories in an indifferent city and the child has to create a kind of order within it.

Each of these schemes reflects a history: the English vision being a natural consequence of a peaceful nation with a reformist history and in search of adventure; the French of a troubled nation with a violent history in search of peace; and the American of an individualistic and sporadically violent country with a strong ethos of family isolation and improvised rules.
After so many words, I'm sure some folks want a few pictures. The magazine's website offers an online slide show of some of Jean de Brunhoff's art.

ADDENDUM: Today's New York Times offers Edward Rothstein's review of the Babar show and another online slide show.

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