On Provenance, Authenticity, Authorship, and Babar’s Big Butt

am, I think, a snob. Not about everything in the world, maybe, but
about literature, indubitably. (Hey, look at that, how often do you get
a chance to use indubitably? It's very satisfying.)
Anyway, while I may not be a literary snob in the  most expected ways (for
instance I'll read just about any trash with great pleasure, as long as
it doesn't pretend to be something it's not), on one particular
topic I get a little touchy: authorship.

Once I realized that not all the Curious George books were by the Reys,
and that some were only based on books by the Reys, I became very
skittish, checking to see which one each was, trying to avoid the

thing about this sort of snobbery is that you have to have at least a little knowledge to get started. It's easy to get it all wrong. I was blathering on about how I read the actual
book of Flowers for Algernon instead of seeing the movie like everyone
else, when my husband pointed out that the book was a novelization of the movie, which in turn was based on
a short story that was the real, authentic Flowers for Algernon. Oops.

And then there's Babar.

love Babar. I love The Story of Babar (yes, yes, there's the harsh
shooting-of-the-mother incident, but once someone told me to stick
those pages together with toothpaste and just turn past them,
everything was cool). The whole story is just so crazy. The old lady. The king dying
of a bad mushroom. The suit of clothes. None of it makes any kind of
sense, yet it all makes sense because it's true to its own crazy self.
The same holds for all those original Babar books. Yes, there are
certainly questions of colonialism and all that, but the whole war with
the rhinos is just so whacked out it's irresistible, especially when
the elephants paint circles on their giant rear ends and prevail.
There's a certain irrational confidence about the whole series,
something that's rare. True great books that have nothing to be consistent with are only beholden to their own nutty narrative


When Diana was tiny,
she fell, and fell hard, for Babar. A friend who lived in France gave
us a stuffed version of King Babar, and Diana ran around the house with
it introducing it to everything, including the floor and her Band-aid.
We went on a Babar quest, and as a result of that, found Babar Learns
to Cook
on alibris.

I didn't notice, at first, that this was written by son, not father. All I
noticed was that it was excellent. She loved it. She loved it until the
book actually disintegrated from over-reading. First the cover was
gone, then the title page and the back, then we were reading it in two
sections, and then—gone.

The later books–Babar does yoga, Babar's ABCs, all the marketing
offshoots that uncoil from a successful character—never really meant
anything to us. But this? Even thinking about the existence of this
silly, dessert-centered wonderful book makes me happy.

And it wasn't written by the original author. And if I had been true to my own prejudices, we never would have read it. It's a very good thing to be wrong, sometimes.

9 thoughts on “On Provenance, Authenticity, Authorship, and Babar’s Big Butt

  1. Yeeessssss… but. I am in total agreement with you about the insidiousness of those dreaded words “based on”. I had exactly the same Curious George experience, and it made me very very wary. I have discovered that not all the Olivia books are Real Olivia Books anymore, and there are those picture book versions of the Little House books that, while it’s not exactly the same because they’re not pretending to be Real Little House Books, it’s *kind of* the same because they’re just not authentic.


  2. I’m with you, too. Although given my youngest son’s infatuation with Curious George for what seemed like years and years, I steeled myself for the “based on” versions and just took it on the chin…


  3. My 8 y.o. daughter has picked up my snobbery in this regard, which makes me feel a little bad. She’s into Nancy Drew now and noticed that there’s a difference btw the older books (sold new in hardcover) and the newer ones (paperback and very different illustrations). She absolutely shuns the newer ones as somehow inauthentic, though it bewildered her that they were all apparently written by the same person. (This led to a discussion of pseudonyms and of multiple people sharing the same pseudonym for marketing purposes; I’m not sure if it was any clearer after the explanation!)
    Anyway, I haven’t read the new ones (or actually any ND since probably 4th or 5th grade when I was a rabid fan), so I’m not sure if she’s missing out on anything by not reading the new ones. But it does make me a little sad to see her draw such a line even though I know I do it all the time…


  4. Lauren Child’s “Charlie and Lola” series is another example. Love her books, but just can’t quite love the TV series spin-offs, though they’re pretty good.


  5. Another example: Corduroy by Don Freeman. The two real Corduroy books are wonderful — both text and illustrations. The newer, based-on, ones are AWFUL.


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