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Should We Burn Babar?: Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories

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In “provocative and entertaining essays [that] will appeal to reflective readers, parents, and educators” (Library Journal), one of the country’s foremost education writers looks at the stories we tell our children. Available now in a revised edition, including a new essay on the importance of “stoop-sitting” and storytelling, Should We Burn Babar? challenges some of the c In “provocative and entertaining essays [that] will appeal to reflective readers, parents, and educators” (Library Journal), one of the country’s foremost education writers looks at the stories we tell our children. Available now in a revised edition, including a new essay on the importance of “stoop-sitting” and storytelling, Should We Burn Babar? challenges some of the chestnuts of children’s literature. Highlighting instances of racism, sexism, and condescension that detract from the tales being told, Kohl provides strategies for detecting bias in stories written for young people and suggests ways to teach kids to think critically about what they read. Beginning with the title essay on Babar the elephant—“just one of a fine series of inquiries into the power children’s books have to shape cultural attitudes,” according to Elliott Bay Booknotes—the book includes essays on Pinocchio, the history of progressive education, and a call for the writing of more radical children’s literature. As the Hungry Mind Review concluded, “Kohl’s prescriptions for renewing our schools through the use of stories and storytelling are impassioned, well-reasoned, and readable.”


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In “provocative and entertaining essays [that] will appeal to reflective readers, parents, and educators” (Library Journal), one of the country’s foremost education writers looks at the stories we tell our children. Available now in a revised edition, including a new essay on the importance of “stoop-sitting” and storytelling, Should We Burn Babar? challenges some of the c In “provocative and entertaining essays [that] will appeal to reflective readers, parents, and educators” (Library Journal), one of the country’s foremost education writers looks at the stories we tell our children. Available now in a revised edition, including a new essay on the importance of “stoop-sitting” and storytelling, Should We Burn Babar? challenges some of the chestnuts of children’s literature. Highlighting instances of racism, sexism, and condescension that detract from the tales being told, Kohl provides strategies for detecting bias in stories written for young people and suggests ways to teach kids to think critically about what they read. Beginning with the title essay on Babar the elephant—“just one of a fine series of inquiries into the power children’s books have to shape cultural attitudes,” according to Elliott Bay Booknotes—the book includes essays on Pinocchio, the history of progressive education, and a call for the writing of more radical children’s literature. As the Hungry Mind Review concluded, “Kohl’s prescriptions for renewing our schools through the use of stories and storytelling are impassioned, well-reasoned, and readable.”

30 review for Should We Burn Babar?: Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories

  1. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    The first three essays are interesting, even if the second and third essays are somewhat scattered. Also be warned, I discuss Kohl's points which some people will consider spoilers. I got this book because of the title essay, "Should We Burn Babar?", an essay that tackles the question of suitability of certain classic children books. I'm torn about the subject and about this book in general, and I think this review is going to be somewhat scattered in thought as well, but here it goes. Part of the The first three essays are interesting, even if the second and third essays are somewhat scattered. Also be warned, I discuss Kohl's points which some people will consider spoilers. I got this book because of the title essay, "Should We Burn Babar?", an essay that tackles the question of suitability of certain classic children books. I'm torn about the subject and about this book in general, and I think this review is going to be somewhat scattered in thought as well, but here it goes. Part of the problem, I believe, is that we can always find problems with anything that children read. Take, for instance, the Harry Potter series, which usually gets picked on for its use of magic. If we really approach the books with the critical quality that Kohl brings to Babar, then we must ask the following: 1. Why are the only examples of muggles bad or clueless? 2. Why are there no working women who are also mothers? Or even married? 3. Why are all the central characters white? 4. Why are all the major movers and shakers male? 5. Why witches and wizards? Why not witches and warlocks? Or just simply wizards? 6. How come the two lesser houses are founded by women? 7. Why does Hermoine end up with Ron, especially after how he acted in the last book? Okay, maybe not that last question, but the first six only touch the surface. And you see my point. Kohl applies this to Babar to illustrate the problems with classic children's literature. Kohl does have several good points - there is racism in Babar, there is something wrong with making Native Americans read Little House on the Prairie. Yet, I'm also left with the feeling that Kohl would also disapprove of any book that was any contray in any way to what he sees as universal truths. I was left with the impression that a book that illustrates all rich people or white people as evil would be okay, as would a book that shows all men repressing women, would be acceptable. But aren't these types of absolutes just as dangerous as those racist and sexist attitudes that we condemn in older works? Bill Gates is privilged, but he does good. Kohl also seems to want the books to tell the truth about history and, paradoxically, whitewash it at the same time. Therefore, books that protray Coloumbus in a totally good light are bad, but so is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it has the "n word". In some ways, Kohl seems to want to re-invent such literature and remove anything that isn't morally right, despite that time period the work was written in. To disregard Finn because of the N word is also completely neglecting the fact that the book is about slavery and changing perceptions. It takes Finn down the road that Uncle Tom's Cabin has traveled. This conflict illustrates the eternal problem about this suitability question - who should be the judge? Kohl does make an argument for what he terms radical children's literature. What stops the essay from being totally good are a few things. First, and most obivious, is that one of the examples he includes of radical literature is a story that Kohl himself is working on. And its boring. Second is the fact that of the four examples he uses (outside of his), only one of which has a female character. That book, A Chair for My Mother, is a wonderful book, but considering it has women in somewhat traditional roles, I'm not sure if I would call it completely "radical". The first two examples he uses protray men as actice, but it is unclear if there are any women in the novels. This is compounded by the third problem - the fact that his defination of radical children's literure doesn't seem very clear - stories where people rebel aganist society but also seem to conform (my words) to a community. I found it interesting in this section, where he starts the discussion by mentioning Young Adult books, that he doesn't mention Robin McKinley, whose retellings of fairy tales and use of motifs fit his defination; or Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose Darkover series has an overwhelming theme of society rights versus the rights of the individual. It's true that Darkover is adult, but soome of the books, like Hawkmistress! are YA. I also find one of central claims had to fully believe. I read both Babar and the Little House Series as a child. While I remember them with a degree of fondness, I don't strongly remember images from them. I strongly remember images from the Black Stallion series, Caddie Woodlawn, the Moomintrolls, and Astrid Lindgren far better. It is strange too, that Lindgren and Judy Blume don't get a mention - Blume fits his idea of radical children's literature. In fact, I remember Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears: A West African Tale far better than I remember Babar. I think in some ways, Kohl makes a generalization and sells a significent number of children short. Kohl's essay about Pinocchio is interesting, but I was left wondering if he read Kate Crackernuts to the class to balance out what he says is the sexism in Pinocchio. Or is Kate inapporiate because she gets married at the end? I found Kohl's reminding essays to be scattered, drawn out, and boring. Kohl seems conflicted and his essays at times do seem confused, most likely because of his interanl conflict. But at the very least, he does get the reader to think about how to get children to think about what they read (or hear) and what children should read (in school at least). What he doesn't do is provide anything in the way of a hard solution or answer. Should stories be balanced? Should Charles Perrault be balanced with any of Angela Carter's folklore collections? Or are both books the wrong ones? At one point, Kohl hints that solution might be in revising the classics, perhaps removing any objection language or ideas. This is hardly new. Anicent Greeks redid the story of Ipenghia. Shakespeare has been rewritten more time than I can count (see Shakespeare Made Fit: Restoration Adaptations of Shakespeare (Everyman's Library). In some ways, however, whitewashing also does the work a disservice because it presents the past as rewritable. Shakespeare, for instance, being the only one of his generation who wasn't anti-Semnitic and who was a feminist before the term was invented. Does anyone really believe such a claim? Perhaps Shakespeare was just kissing up to the boss lady? This solution seems overly simplistic and just as dangerous to children. Kohl's example of questions seems the best way to go.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sandy D.

    These are sometimes really fascinating and on-target, but sometimes overly pedantic and dated looks at racism,sexism,and class in traditional kid lit (especially Babar, as you might expect). I liked the title essay, and the one on Rosa Parks and why her story is so often mistold, but the essays on what a radical (in the revolutionary sense) kid's lit should look like, Pinocchio and multiculturalism in the early 1900's, and why progressive education is not a new idea dragged more than a bit. I le These are sometimes really fascinating and on-target, but sometimes overly pedantic and dated looks at racism,sexism,and class in traditional kid lit (especially Babar, as you might expect). I liked the title essay, and the one on Rosa Parks and why her story is so often mistold, but the essays on what a radical (in the revolutionary sense) kid's lit should look like, Pinocchio and multiculturalism in the early 1900's, and why progressive education is not a new idea dragged more than a bit. I learned quite a bit, but it wasn't scintillating reading. I would love to see this updated (from 1995), though. And no, we shouldn't burn Babar, but we don't need to give him to kids without some critical examination of his hidden messages. ;)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ali Mandala-Kaynak

    I found the 5 essays in this book to be very informative and interesting. I originally picked up the book because I enjoyed reading Babar as a child and because during college I did a project on gender in children's literature. As my research was primarily based on gender within stories I missed out on this book, as it deals with other questions about children's lit. That being said I wish I had found it while still studying as it would have been a great jumping off point to talk about not only I found the 5 essays in this book to be very informative and interesting. I originally picked up the book because I enjoyed reading Babar as a child and because during college I did a project on gender in children's literature. As my research was primarily based on gender within stories I missed out on this book, as it deals with other questions about children's lit. That being said I wish I had found it while still studying as it would have been a great jumping off point to talk about not only children's lit (specifically older somewhat problematic texts) but also about the state of education today. Can children learn in the environment of testing that's been created for them? My favorite essays in the book were the first and third. As this is a research book, I don't consider this spoilers... but... The first was about Babar and the problems of literature of its kind. Should we continue to teach "classics" even when they are problematic? Babar is a wonderful adventure for children but when looked at critically has undertones of racism and colonialism. The same can be said about many stories including Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Should these texts be read by kids? How much influence do they really have on children? I though Kohl did a great job analyzing this topic. And I appreciate that he doesn't completely condemn these texts but instead gives children credit. These texts can be read when read and discussed critically. If we help children be active readers, they can understand the problems within these stories. You can still appreciate and author's imagination and writing but acknowledge the negative aspects as well. If read with open discussion children can come to their own conclusions. These discussions would also prepare children to critically read and discuss as adults (since there is plenty of controversial text we read as adult... that probably also needs to be discussed and viewed more critically). I appreciate that the author used his personal experiences with Babar and other stories (as a child, parent and teacher) to provide examples and to show where discussions about books can lead. The third was about Pinocchio and beyond. I enjoyed the critical analysis of the story (it's never been one of my favorite books) and the examples of child response to the story. I enjoyed the three different sets of analysis and how he relates it to life and school in America as an Italian immigrant. I learned a lot of history as he explored these worlds. It's crazy to me how so much has changed and yet how much remains the same. He explores the world of the Italian immigrants and I see so many parallels that can be taken today when looking at the newest immigrants entering America. On a side note, I would be curious to know what the author thinks about what is going on in the world today. I enjoyed the other pieces as well but they were quite different. I was quite interested in his plea for radical children's literature although am not completely sure I agree with his limiting definition. I also appreciated his taking us through a journey of the development of the schools system in the US. It's a fictionalized account but full of great details. There were moments where the book was dry but overall I really enjoyed the analysis and information presented.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Rich Farrell

    I’ll admit that some of Kohl’s work reads dated and has some contradictions. Still, I feel an odd sense that Kohl is a “kindred spirit” and I wish I had read his work earlier in my career. I, too, believe that teaching criticism, the earlier the better, makes for richer, more authentic discussion. I, too, believe that literacy is a social endeavor grounded in storytelling, which is what makes us human. I, too, believe in the messiness of history and literature in the movement toward a more progr I’ll admit that some of Kohl’s work reads dated and has some contradictions. Still, I feel an odd sense that Kohl is a “kindred spirit” and I wish I had read his work earlier in my career. I, too, believe that teaching criticism, the earlier the better, makes for richer, more authentic discussion. I, too, believe that literacy is a social endeavor grounded in storytelling, which is what makes us human. I, too, believe in the messiness of history and literature in the movement toward a more progressive education. I know Babar brought me to this book (I’m a fan of Babar, regardless of the problematic plot and characterization.), but I left feeling somewhat vindicated in much of my educational philosophy, for better or for worse.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mimi

    There were two excellent essays in this novel, one about Babar and reading stories that are not culturally sensitive and one on Rosa Parks. The other essays weren't as strong and were much more pedantic. There were two excellent essays in this novel, one about Babar and reading stories that are not culturally sensitive and one on Rosa Parks. The other essays weren't as strong and were much more pedantic.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn Kost

    Kohl writes three essays that demonstrate the power that the stories we tell have to shape the ways that children think about the world. Kohl devised his own method of shared inquiry and challenges the status quo ideology of European and wealthy at the pinnacle of culture and that which is to be emulated and desired. Anyone familiar with children's literature and stories that are part of the lexicon, like Rosa Parks and Pinocchio, will recognize the considerable evidence that Kohl uses to suppor Kohl writes three essays that demonstrate the power that the stories we tell have to shape the ways that children think about the world. Kohl devised his own method of shared inquiry and challenges the status quo ideology of European and wealthy at the pinnacle of culture and that which is to be emulated and desired. Anyone familiar with children's literature and stories that are part of the lexicon, like Rosa Parks and Pinocchio, will recognize the considerable evidence that Kohl uses to support his assertion that the stories we tell our children highlight "personal challenges and individual success...independence, personal responsibility and autonomy. The social imagination that encounters thinking about solidarity, cooperation, group struggle and belonging to a caring group is relegated to minority status. Healthy community life and collective community wide struggles are absent..."p.62 The final essay traces through story the history of education in the USA from colonial times to the present and what a story it is. Francis Parker, John Dewey, the rise of the "science of education," which gave rise to extensive non-teaching bureaucracies; the Gary Plan, akin to today's movement for community school; and Cubberly, whose pleas for federal funding gave rise to the Department of Education. This is thoughtful, insightful work that anyone interested in education would find compelling, and which anyone who works with children should read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mia

    I initially got this book for the final chapter, which is a fictional narrative dealing with the history of public education in this country (I am arguing in this quarter's final paper that public education was created as a type of enslavement, ironic when juxtaposed with the abolitionists' fight to abolish slavery and the suffragists' fight to rid the institution of marriage of its slavery-like aspects). Then I began to read Kohl's analyses of children's stories like Babar and Pinnochio, and th I initially got this book for the final chapter, which is a fictional narrative dealing with the history of public education in this country (I am arguing in this quarter's final paper that public education was created as a type of enslavement, ironic when juxtaposed with the abolitionists' fight to abolish slavery and the suffragists' fight to rid the institution of marriage of its slavery-like aspects). Then I began to read Kohl's analyses of children's stories like Babar and Pinnochio, and the way he approached teaching these "classics" to his kindergarten students years ago (Kohl has taught everything from kindergarten to grad school). It really is fascinating to look at the sub-texts and how his students viewed them. It also gives me ideas on how to approach reading with my own children, adding a critical approach to help them learn how to "search through" a text and "get behind" them (see the chapter on Pinnochio).

  8. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    The first essay, "Should We Burn Babar?" is really insightful and thought-provoking, and the second essay on radical children's literature is also interesting. The other essays were fine, but they seemed to stray from what I thought was going to be a whole-book focus on evaluating children's literature. They also don't present any arguments that can't be found elsewhere. I agree with and believe in Kohl's stance on and passions for education, but I wish the rest of the book matched the new infor The first essay, "Should We Burn Babar?" is really insightful and thought-provoking, and the second essay on radical children's literature is also interesting. The other essays were fine, but they seemed to stray from what I thought was going to be a whole-book focus on evaluating children's literature. They also don't present any arguments that can't be found elsewhere. I agree with and believe in Kohl's stance on and passions for education, but I wish the rest of the book matched the new information and outlooks presented in the opening essays.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jill Anderson

    How our schools, our children's books, our histories have taken the powerful, incredible wonderful story of Rosa Parks and watered it down.... Also, I am realizing it is no coincidence that two of the radical Chicana women writers I have studied chose to write children's books too.... What stories do I want to tell A and her amigxs, and how will I tell them? How our schools, our children's books, our histories have taken the powerful, incredible wonderful story of Rosa Parks and watered it down.... Also, I am realizing it is no coincidence that two of the radical Chicana women writers I have studied chose to write children's books too.... What stories do I want to tell A and her amigxs, and how will I tell them?

  10. 4 out of 5

    Devon

    I actually didn't read all of this book - just the first two essays. I really enjoyed the essay on the Rosa Parks story. I'd consider assigning it to a class as a way to demonstrate the problems with historical memory, etc. As for Babar, well - I don't think we should burn any book, much less his. I actually didn't read all of this book - just the first two essays. I really enjoyed the essay on the Rosa Parks story. I'd consider assigning it to a class as a way to demonstrate the problems with historical memory, etc. As for Babar, well - I don't think we should burn any book, much less his.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Yellowoasis

    A very good examination of some of the problems of children's literature. His thoughtfulness regarding potentially problematic books, especially those regarded as classics, would be of help for parents, teachers and librarians grappling with the issue. His chapter calling for radical children's literature is also worth reading. A very good examination of some of the problems of children's literature. His thoughtfulness regarding potentially problematic books, especially those regarded as classics, would be of help for parents, teachers and librarians grappling with the issue. His chapter calling for radical children's literature is also worth reading.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    Most of the topics addressed by this book are of interest to me, and I did find some parts of the essays interesting, but some of Kohl's points might have resonated with me more if they had been more clearly made. There are also portions of the book that I found quite boring. Most of the topics addressed by this book are of interest to me, and I did find some parts of the essays interesting, but some of Kohl's points might have resonated with me more if they had been more clearly made. There are also portions of the book that I found quite boring.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Alfajirikali

    Not being fond of Babar to begin with, naturally I was intrigued by the title. The author presents many interesting topics about literature intended for children, it questions many "classics" and their underlying themes. I enjoyed the analysis process, and the writing style of the author. Not being fond of Babar to begin with, naturally I was intrigued by the title. The author presents many interesting topics about literature intended for children, it questions many "classics" and their underlying themes. I enjoyed the analysis process, and the writing style of the author.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Avery

    My two favorites in this collection were "Should we Burn Babar?" and "A Plea for Radical Children's Literature." I'm not in the education field but I think this is a good cultural analysis as well as helpful for choosing literature for the burgeoning readers in your home! My two favorites in this collection were "Should we Burn Babar?" and "A Plea for Radical Children's Literature." I'm not in the education field but I think this is a good cultural analysis as well as helpful for choosing literature for the burgeoning readers in your home!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Andy

    Pretty okay book. Definitely thought it would be more about debunking children's books with bad messages. Only Babar is presented this way, and that makes up maybe the first quarter of the book. If you want a history of alternative education in the U.S. this is your jam. Otherwise, skip it. Pretty okay book. Definitely thought it would be more about debunking children's books with bad messages. Only Babar is presented this way, and that makes up maybe the first quarter of the book. If you want a history of alternative education in the U.S. this is your jam. Otherwise, skip it.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Pauline

    Quirky and entertaining...I love the way this book made me think about traditional stories to which we've exposed children/students. This will be a great resource for students doing a 'banned-book' paper! Quirky and entertaining...I love the way this book made me think about traditional stories to which we've exposed children/students. This will be a great resource for students doing a 'banned-book' paper!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Whiskeyb

    babar is such a pompous dick!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Gloria

    read most of the essays… will return

  19. 5 out of 5

    Justin

    http://librarianaut.com/2012/10/08/bo... http://librarianaut.com/2012/10/08/bo...

  20. 5 out of 5

    E

    I'm thinking I may disagree with a lot of this, but I want to read it anyway. I'm thinking I may disagree with a lot of this, but I want to read it anyway.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Isabel

    Particularly interesting essay about the teaching in schools of Rosa Park's involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott. Particularly interesting essay about the teaching in schools of Rosa Park's involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Elvis

    What I learned...there are ideas from this book that still float around in my head - how to write a pro-community, pro-people book (the lessons expand beyond kids' books)...etc. What I learned...there are ideas from this book that still float around in my head - how to write a pro-community, pro-people book (the lessons expand beyond kids' books)...etc.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Michele

    I found the essay about Rosa Parks and the history of education in America particularly interesting.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Karolinde (Kari)

    While there may be some good points about racial stereotypes in children's lit in this book, I found most of the points far removed from reality. While there may be some good points about racial stereotypes in children's lit in this book, I found most of the points far removed from reality.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Anna

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jaqxun

  27. 4 out of 5

    Laura Douglas

  28. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Carranza

  29. 4 out of 5

    David Hernandez Saca

  30. 5 out of 5

    Stacy

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