On Barbapapas, Young Minds, and Energy Technologies

And now for something completely different: in a lighter tone, let’s look at what children’s books might be teaching my kids about science and technology.

Start ’em young! Being a parent of little kids I find myself thinking more about how and where our basic assumptions and impressions about life, society, technology, and science come from. I have realised how easily children absorb anything that they read or watch. This is why I have found myself feeling uneasy about certain children’s books, and I end up needing to explain some of the holes in their reasoning to my kids as we read them. For instance… Barbapapa!

IMG_9343Barbapapa is a french series about a shapeshifting blob-family, and it has been translated to thirty languages. I loved these books as a kid, and I still quite enjoy their animated series where they travel the world and meet animals from all continents. Here in Switzerland we have a couple of these books in German, like this one in the picture: Barbapapas in the Winter. Every time I read this one, however, there are a couple of things that bug me. I wouldn’t really want my kids just swallowing everything they are being told in the book. So, here I go… what went on in my head as I read the bed-time story tonight:

Meet the Barbapapas! The kids all have their special talents, and the ones particularly important for this story are Barbakus, the yellow one, who is a budding zoologist (he’s called Barbazoo in Swedish) who loves animals, and the blue one, Barbarix, who is the scientist/inventor.

meet barbapapas

(Never mind that if you are a girl, you are stuck with identifying with special interest of either singing, reading, or looking pretty… yeah… uh.. the two first are not so bad on second thought).IMG_9345

Let’s skip a page or two to get to the point. This book starts off with a very unusual present that Barbakus gets for Christmas: a whole flock of exotic African birds! He’s overjoyed! He already has a bunch of pets but these are even fancier.

…BUT its winter. And these birds need to be kept warm. The Barbapapas live in the middle of nowhere (I’ll get to that if I do a similar rant about the book about how they ended up living and building their home there) and there’s a catch: they must heat their home with firewood.


LOTS OF WOOD. The animals are NOT pleased. The forest they show on the first logging page above has only 4 stumps showing, but in the next page there are some 19 stumps and the forest has all but disappeared, right? Oh dear.


Knowing what little I do about heating a house with wood, I thought that looked a bit excessive. Quick googling and a couple of articles later, my instincts were confirmed, and it seems that a large house in Northern latitudes like Canada, Northern US, or Northern Europe, would need roughly 4 cords of wood over the heating season. Now, France isn’t that far up north… but lets say it’s a real cold winter? We can take the Northern average of 4 cords.

With some margin for comfort, you would still need about eight good trees for that whole season. Yeah that would empty a forest, right, right?

Well perhaps this was a part of a larger trend of a whole nearby village all chopping down trees in the same forest, and the other tree-choppers have been conveniently left off the picture. Moving on. Barbarix (the blue one, the inventor) decides to move on to a better energy source: renewables! Hydro is great. Problem solved.


Oh. But the River freezes over! What to do? Well, it’s windy, so he builds wind power (this will provide full energy needs for warming a house in the winter, in the extreme cold when even running water freezes over, right?).


Well. Luckily they realise that sometimes there is no wind. EXCELLENT point! But they have a solution to that as well: that’s when they will use solar power.


In the dead of WINTER? Great, that’ll work. One warm and cozy tropical sanctuary coming right up!

Oh but… on the next page they do actually acknowledge that it may be that there are some strange times when there is no wind and no sun! Very well done. BUT fear not. There is a solution to this too. In that case they will just hook up four bicycles to electricity and heat up the whole house with pedalling power! Awesomesauce! How can people claim that this thing with energy is still a problem anywhere?


Never mind that an Olympic bicycle athlete doing an all-out-performance, before he collapses on the ground, is able to pedal enough electricity to … toast a bread. Yes. I love toast, by the way. His legs are like tree trunks and he can power a toaster once to produce a slightly golden slice of white bread. That perspective somehow seems to be missing in the happy work-out pages of the book.

Why does it bother me? It’s just a children’s book! The bugging probably has to do with how electricity is something we take for granted in the west, coupled with selective optimism for that for certain technologies (solar and wind), all problems will simply solve themselves, for sure (while for others we can’t rely on any fanciful talk of developing technologies). I love how the actual bicycle demonstration offers perspective on the mighty power of the sockets. And toasters.

But here, Barbapapas, with the power of toasting four breads – with lengthy breaks to catch their breaths and release the burning in their legs, I’m assuming – have put all energy problems henceforth behind us! Here, kids, is all you need to know about energy.

Could this book, published originally in 1971, have helped shape a whole generation of citizens towards an unfortunately breezy idea of energy production? 😉 Sigh. No wonder Germany is in such trouble with their energy ‘revolution’ – only relying on solar and wind, closing nuclear plants, and, as the people continue to wish for toast and cozy tropical atmospheres even on cold, dark mornings… sadly they end up relying on more coal power and increasing their carbon emissions.

I will continue telling my kids that the Barbapapas here are only in fact toasting their breads, and that it’s a silly idea that you could warm a house that way. If, however, one would like to give kids some real perspective about energy required for many of the daily activities we take for granted, you could do worse than to show them this: a video of a world famous track cyclist Robert Förstemann battling a 700w toaster. They write:

Can he, with his 74cm legs, generate enough energy to create a golden-brown toast?

The challenge was set up to show how much energy we humans consume compared to what we can generate. This is a graduation project from the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts filmed in Stockholm, Sweden.

The finishing examples estimate how many Roberts that would be needed to power either a petrol car consuming 6,5l/100km for one hour, or a one-hour Boeing 737-800 flight.


How many Roberts do you need?

As a bonus page that bugs me in the end: Barbakus has done the right thing and taken the birds back to their home in Africa, and he gets a replacement present.


There’s nothing wrong with that, and the animals are furry and all, but the text says they “are accustomed to the climate because they come from close by.” Excuse me? Guinea pigs and rabbits? Yes one is common here in Europe. And the other one comes from the frigging ANDES. Jeez. Get your facts straight, children’s book!

Ahh it feels so much better to get that off my chest.

About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, science communicator, an agricultural and biodiversity analyst, and a fiction writer.
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1 Response to On Barbapapas, Young Minds, and Energy Technologies

  1. ClaireD says:

    Lol – I’m glad I’m not the only one who questions some of these kids books. I actually had to put Babar away so we never have to read it again – it’s so awful with the colonialism/ sexism… !


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