June 29, 2006

Babar, elephant hero of children’s books, turns 75

By James Mackenzie

PARIS (Reuters) - Babar the Elephant, a timeless figure in
children's literature, turns 75 this year, his trademark crown
and green suit unmarked by changing fashions or criticism that
his jungle realm is a relic of colonialism.

Babar was created one evening in 1931 when Cecile de
Brunhoff, a piano teacher, told her two small sons the story of
an elephant whose mother is killed by hunters and who flees to
a town where he learns to dress as a human.

"My brother and I loved the story and we rushed into my
father's studio -- he was a painter -- to tell him about it,"
Laurent de Brunhoff, who was six when his mother made the tale
up, told Reuters.

"He drew some images in a big sketch book and he developed
the idea. He gave Babar his name, because my mother hadn't
given him one," he said.

The boys' father, Jean de Brunhoff, showed the sketches to
a relative who worked in magazines. The story was published as
a book, becoming an instant success and leading to a series of
others, telling how Babar returns home to become king and of
his subsequent adventures.

"It was a surprise in publishing terms," said Laurent de
Brunhoff. "At the start of the 1930s there weren't that many
books for children and the presentation of the book was totally
new, with its big double pages full of detail."

Babar has since become a familiar figure in children's
bedrooms from France to Japan and his enduring appeal was
marked this month by the French post office, which issued a
commemorative stamp.

Jean de Brunhoff died in 1937 but Laurent took up the
character himself in 1946 and has since taken Babar through a
new series of adventures, including a trip into space. Cecile
de Brunhoff died in 2003.


But Babar has stayed true to his origins in pre-war France,
his three-piece suit and spats and the sailor outfits of his
children recalling the dress of an earlier epoch. His musical
and cultural interests are firmly in the classical European

"For foreigners, it's very French. I often hear that in
America where I live but for me I don't really see it, myself,"
de Brunhoff said.

More controversially, Babar has been attacked as a symbol
of imperialist oppression, his Europeanized dress and the
colonial-style buildings of his capital Celesteville seen as a
product of France's own colonial past.

One critic was so concerned by what he saw as Babar's
dangerous influence on children's imaginations that he wrote an
essay entitled "Should we burn Babar?"

"It annoys me a bit because I don't think it's the idea
behind Babar," de Brunhoff said.

"You can understand it, the elephant who goes to find human
civilization and brings it back home," he said. "But it
basically comes from the fact that in the 1930s, there was
colonialism. France was a colonial power."

"The idea of a 'savage' moving toward civilization can be
attacked as colonialist," he said. "But I don't think for one
second that that's what's evoked in a child's mind."

He said the atmosphere of family closeness and the colorful
stories was behind the series' success, a success now
reinforced by an industry of Babar posters and accessories of
all kinds.

"Children of an age to appreciate Babar, that's to say
between two and seven years, haven't changed that much even if
they sometimes like playing with computers," he said.