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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Babar Turns 80

With the publication of Babar’s Celesteville Games, the endearing, yet sometimes controversial elephant turns 80. Few may know that the pachyderm had two creators. In a profile of Laurent de Brunhoff, son of Babar’s first creator Jean de Brunoff ("Down Memory Lane With Babar the Elephant," Aug. 8, 2011), USA Today writer Bob Minzesheimer chronicles the series that is still popular with young readers.

The newest book is 42nd in the series that began when Laurent de Brunhoff was five and his mother made up a story about an unnamed young elephant who was playing in the jungle when his mother was shot by hunters. When de Brunhoff and his younger brother told the story to their artist father the next day, he decided to illustrate it and the series was born. Histoire de Babar: Le Petit Eléphant was published in 1931 and appeared in the U.S. two years later, Minzesheimer writes.

Jean de Brunhoff created five Babar books before he died of tuberculosis 1937. His son, Laurent, was only 13. He later attended the same art school as his father and became an abstract painter, but at 21 found himself drawing the elephant he had once loved.

While some praise the books, others have criticized them, especially those written during France’s colonial period. Toni Morrison, a Random House editor in the 1960s, criticized the depiction of natives in the 1949 book Babar’s Picnic. The author agreed to allow the publisher drop the book and let it go out-of-print. He admits to being embarrassed at some of his father’s early books, as well as his own, Minzesheimer says.

Times have changed, but the classic pachyderm seems to have endured. In Babar’s Celesteville the African elephant’s daughter, Flora, meets and marries an Indian elephant at some Olympic-style games with international animal athletes.

Want to read more about Babar? Here’s a few books to try:

The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff

Bonjour Babar! The Six Unabridged Classics by the Creator of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

Babar Comes to America by Laurent de Brunhoff

Babar’s Busy Year by Laurent de Brunoff

Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories by Herbert Kohl

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