MORRILL MEMORIAL LIBRARY

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Barbapapa: My Favorite Shape-Shifter

When I mention my favorite series of books (and corresponding television shows) from my childhood I get one of two reactions. Either people have no idea what I’m talking about, or they light up, eager to reminisce about the characters they also adored but had long since forgotten about. Those in the latter group may even burst into song, remembering the theme song from the kids’ show about the strange creature and his family, Barbapapa.

Partners Annette Tison and Talus Taylor created Barbapapa, a gentle and friendly shape-shifting pink blob in the 1970s. In a series of children’s books, he leads his family of creatures, called Barbapapas, as they have adventures and solve problems using their unique skill, the ability to “change their shapes and sizes very easily,” as the theme song lyrics explain. The family includes, in addition to the patriarch, his wife Barbamama, and children including the very strong Barbabravo, the musically gifted Barbalala, the animal lover Barbazoo, the bookworm Barbalib, and the artistic Barbabeau. They love to turn themselves into things like boats and planes for recreation, and into animal shapes to frolic among the wildlife, but often use their transformative powers to do good deeds and help people.

The book Barbapapa reveals that the big guy himself originated in a (human) family’s garden. The family sent him to a zoo, but he escaped, went on to rescue some folks from a burning building by transforming into a staircase, and was welcomed back with open arms. In a later story he traveled the world searching for others of his kind, only to discover that his companions were in his own back yard all along, growing in the garden as he did. In the book Barbapapa’s Ark, the colorful pear-shaped family members felt dismayed at the pollution and mistreatment of animals on earth, so they formed into a rocket ship, and escaped with a selection of creatures great and small. Humans learned their lesson and cleaned up their act in order to have the Barbapapas return, along with the animal kingdom.

Reading and watching Barbapapa stories, it becomes clear that authors Tison and Taylor were animal lovers and environmentalists. Looking for works of theirs beyond the Barbapapa series, I discovered two children’s reference books, The Big Book of Animal Records, and The Big Book of Amazing Animal Behavior. Both extremely informative books feature impressive drawings of animals more grounded in reality than the Barbapapas, but with touches of whimsy nonetheless. The duo also wrote Look Out For Ghosts, a fun storybook with glow-in-the-dark pictures.

Given how much I enjoy Tison and Taylor’s illustrations and positive messages, I’m surprised that more people don’t know about them. Over the years of talking about them I discovered that while the Barbapapas were well known in France where the authors lived, as well as other parts of Europe and even Japan, very few Americans were ever exposed to them. Lucky for me, the Barbapapa television program, a low budget animated version of the storybooks, aired in the 1970s on channel 56, in the metro Boston area. I remember watching it very early in the morning while my parents slept. I have no idea why we had it in syndication while other parts of the U.S. were deprived, but mentioning the Barbapapas tends to turn into a bonding experience with fellow Bostonians who remember them too.

Normally in the From the Library column, we librarians like to mention books that readers may want to borrow from Norwood’s library and others in the Minuteman Library Network. Unfortunately, Barbapapa and other books by Tison and Taylor cannot be located at most libraries and few remain in print in English. The Cambridge Public Library has a decent selection of them, but mostly in French. English-speakers feeling nostalgic may reacquaint themselves with the Barbapapas by visiting their official website (www.barbapapa.com/the-barbapa-family-en) or searching YouTube for videos.

As the books are hard to come by, readers will have to stick with favorites like Dr. Seuss for fantastic critters that defy the laws of physics, and Richard Scarry for adorable cartoon drawings of animals; these were also among my childhood favorites. For young readers interested in environmental stewardship and animal welfare, Carl Hiaasen’s books including Hoot, Flush, and Chomp come highly recommended. They may also enjoy the FunJungle series by Stuart Gibbs. In stories such as Panda-monium, Big Game, and Poached, Teddy Fitzroy solves mysteries and protects the inhabitants of the zoo where he lives. While the library remains closed for visitors, our Children’s department will be visiting spots in Norwood with a pop-up library! They will have book bundles ready for checkout on the spot, including selections of books on various animals. Feel free to contact the Children’s librarians about specific book requests or customized book bundles as well – see the library’s website or call for details. 

Lydia Sampson is the Assistant Director at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the July 9, 2020 issue of the Transcript and Bulletin.

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