by Kathryn Beine Butzlaff
Twice a week in a reclaimed park in a working-poor neighborhood in Waukegan, Ill., I read to children. Few have books in their homes. The majority don’t have library cards (but, happily, after eight years, this is changing). After we finish our peewee tennis lesson, I settle them down and ask one of them to bring over my heavy book bag so we can get started.
Do you know what their favorite story is, year in and year out? The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff. That proper, spat-wearing elephant who flees the forest to the city and finds a patroness and a splendid green suit. He betters himself through paying attention to his teachers and doing well in his schoolwork, so much so that he eventually returns home to accept the position of king of all the elephants.
Babar is hopelessly patriarchal; he revels in leadership and, later, fatherhood. And these children love him for it. Why? Because he brings order and sureness to every situation and kindness to everyone he meets. His good manners and work ethic take him far.
These qualities resound with children whose families are marginalized, on the edges of a prosperous country called America. When Babar takes his cousins to buy beautiful clothes and then eat pastries on their first venture to the city, my group sits transfixed.
In the episode when Babar loses his crown, there comes a point — specifically when he misses the bateau-mouche ride — when I realize no one is breathing. Big-eyed, my audience honestly doesn’t see how Babar can retrieve his crown before that evening’s opera. But of course he does, and they are relieved and happy for him.
The night I brought my son’s old Babar stuffed puppet to story time, these little readers almost collapsed. To them he was a live incarnation of Babar himself. And when he greeted them in an arch, fatherly voice, a whole new dimension was added to our literary exploration.
But Babar is by no means the only character carrying the torch to children’s hearts; let’s not forget about Madeline, author Ludwig Bemelmans’ fearless French schoolgirl who is both the pride and terror of Miss Clavel.
Why do children have such a fondness for someone so elite? Maybe it’s her heroic escapades such as hiding a large dog under her bed after lights out.
But let’s give a little credit to the two straight lines and that adorable hair bow. Children want order and niceness in their lives. When one girl asked me if Madeline really lived at her school, I tried to explain how her parents traveled a lot and she needed to live there so she wouldn’t miss any classes. She looked at me and snorted, pleased that she came from a household where her mother tucked her in at night.
Children, and occasionally adults, want to be the character in the stories they hear. They want to try on the protagonist’s shoes and walk in them for a couple of blocks — all from the safety of a warm lap or, in our case, a sticky park bench.
No one takes them on such an existential journey as the little boy Harold does in his bunny suit with his purple crayon. With wide eyes they show Harold the utmost respect as he creates his world, literally from scratch. Isn’t that what they are trying to do?
I could go on and on. One time a toddler crawled from his mother’s lap up onto the picnic table where I was reading so he could get close to the Gingerbread Man. Parents who didn’t speak much English watched and listened to this book with such strong interest that I wondered if anyone in their homes had ever read to them when they were children.
Each summer when we begin these tennis lessons and story times, the children are better and better behaved. My husband notices it as he works with the older kids on the court, amused when some of them sneak off early just to see what the Hungry Caterpillar is up to this week.
Can classic children’s literature be a civilizing force? Yes, I believe it can, and so do these delightful children who tune in and absorb it all.
When a young girl looks up at you and says, “Miss Kathryn, I just love books,” I smile right back and say, “So do I, Marilyn. I just have to read every day!” We’re on the same page.
It’s no wonder Babar thrills them, for his story is their story. He is showing them the way, leading them from the edges and shadows to a brighter world. I see myself in his patroness, the Old Lady, in her simple black garb. And her story is my story, because we both know how easy and important it is to pass on the good stuff.
Kathryn Beine Butzlaff (WCAS79) is a copywriter, volunteer and yogi who lives in Lake Bluff, Ill.
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