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Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

41wxhm0gy4l_sl500_aa240_My children grew up with a poster of Babar adorning our bathroom “well satisfied with his purchases and feeling very elegant indeed, Babar now goes to the photographer to have his picture taken.” How absurd, and how wonderful.

Babar is one of my favourite characters from childhood books. On a recent trip to New York City an exhibit of Early Drafts and Watercolors titled Drawing Babar was on the top of my list of shows to see. The Morgan Library acquired the Babar collection in 2004. This was an exhibit of the work of Jean de Brunhoff and his son Laurent de Brunhoff who continued the stories that his father began.

Babar was actually born in the imagination of Jean de Brunhoff’s wife, Cecile. There was a bedtime story she told her sons about a baby elephant. The sons convinced their father, a painter, to illustrate and write down the story. The family had publishing connections – and The Story of Babar was presented to the world in 1931.

The Story of Babar is such a wise and sensitive story. We meet the little elephant living an idyllic life until the day a hunter shoots and kills his mother. Babar escapes and runs away – to a town. This is a perfect example of the magic of storytelling and the suspension of belief – The reader can see clearly, by looking at the illustrations, that Babar was obviously, originally, in Africa – and the city he comes to is so obviously Paris. Here a rich Old Lady “who has always been fond of little elephants” takes him in. Babar and the Old Lady live a lovely life of shopping, healthy living and travel, “She gives him whatever he wants.” What child would not envy Babar this life! This good fortune is tempered however with a reflective Babar who “often stands at the window, thinking sadly of his childhood, and cries when he remembers his mother.” And I realize what a good book this is for the grieving child. Babar does eventually return to the forest and his elephant family as the story ends.

That first story was not the end however. Jean de Brunhoff had found a new career with the commercial success of this little book and many more Babar stories followed. Jean de Brunhoff died of tuberculosis at the age of only 37. It was his older son, Laurent, also a painter, who continued the Babar stories. Their work is shown together – a room full of the father’s work, a room full of the son’s, and some together. It was fascinating to see how Jean de Brunhoff worked. First in graphite as characters were created, then changed as text and illustration developed, as colours were selected, and the final drawings with black ink and watercolour. Then the cursive text instead of type, the same as the handwriting his sons were learning at school. Laurent had a different approach, working with watercolour sketches. I felt his work was perhaps not as natural, not as full of life as the work of his father.

Both father and son, the father especially, have created books that have that wonderful harmony of illustration and text that happens when both are created together – a unified whole. A lasting gift to all children.

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