Who needs a reason to read Babar books?
One of the delights in dealing in children’s first edition books is having an legitimate reason to dip into the children’s literary world for a short while. Allowing time to relish the humour of a well written children’s story and enjoy the colourful and charming pictures is a real pleasure. Babar the Elephant is one of those classic characters from the twentieth century who never fails to tempt adults and children alike. His creator, Jean De Brunhoff, produced definitive works of children’s writing and artwork that remain popular with all ages today.
Brunhoff wrote and illustrated a series of six Babar books plus an Elephant alphabet book. The books are often considered a personal reflection of Brunhoff’s life events. They depict birth, loss of a family member, a journey to a large city, education, marriage and the development of a kingdom (although the latter clearly not played out in Brunhoff’s life!). Brunhoff stories included tales of death and war yet he managed to portray these unpleasant topics in a straightforward and understandable manner. When they were published in 1930’s their large format and double page spread was considered distinctive and instantly appealing to children. In addition, the use of a cursive writing text encouraged an intimate relationship with the story. Primarily however, Brunhoff’s talented watercolour illustrations in detailed and bright colours were an instant attraction for children and his simple yet poetic prose spoke directly to his audience.
Brunhoff had many life experiences to draw upon in his portrayal of Babar’s life. After graduation Brunhoff joined the French Army at the end of World War 1 and engaged in warfare on the front line. After studying with Othon Friesz, at the Acadamie de la Chamiere in Montparnasse he became a professional artist. He excelled in works of portraits, still lives and landscapes. Brunhoff married a talented pianist, Cecile Sabourand, in 1924 and they had three sons, Laurent, Mathieu and Thierry. It was Cecile who initially invented a bedtime story about a little elephant to amuse Matthieu who was ill at the time. The child and his brothers so loved the story of the little elephant who left the jungle for the big city that they encouraged their father to illustrate the story and make a book about the elephant. Brunhoff’s artistic skills turned the story into a picture book, with text, which became The Story of Babar.
Jean de Brunhoff came from a family of successful publishing professionals and his father actually ran a publishing house. His brothers were the editors of Paris Vogue and Le Decor D’Aujourd’hui. His sister was a photographer who was married to the chief of Conde Nast’s Le Jardin Des Modes. The familial influence no doubt encouraged the formulation of a book of the bedtime tales. The result was Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant which was published in 1931 by his brother in law’s publishers at Editions du Jardin Des Modes. The first USA publication was in 1933 by Harrison Smith & Robert Hass. An English version was presented in the Daily Sketch and later published in 1934 by Methuen with an introduction by A.A. Milne. The Babar character was an instant success and Brunhoff was encouraged to write more stories about the elephant. He wrote a succession of Babar books over the next few years. Le Voyage de Babar (1932), Le Roi Babar (1933), Le ABC de Babar (1934), were published by Jardin Des Modes. The last three stories, Les Vacance de Zephir (1936), Babar en Famille, (1938) and Babar et Pere Noel (1941), were all published by a different publisher, Hachette. English versions of all these books were soon published and the Babar character became internationally popular.
Unfortunately in the early 1930’s Brunhoff was diagnosed with tuberculosis and he was required to spend long periods of time in a Swiss sanatorium. Despite his illness Brunhoff was able to continue his work, yet he died at the age of 38 in 1937 before he was able to see his last few books published. Fortunately his son, Laurent, has safeguarded the style and writing of his father’s Babar books and continued to publish the Babar stories ten years after his death. There are now over fifty Babar titles and sales of the books are in their millions. Laurent De Brunhoff has ensured the success of the Babar character continues to this day.
Reviewers have praised the uniqueness of Brunhoff’s approach to children’s literature from the first publication date to today. John Piper (1903-92) from the Spectator commented that Brunhoff “had that power of careful observation that allowed him again and again to hit on ideas so simple and obvious that nobody has thought of them in that way before, although everybody wishes they had.” The children’s author, A.A. Milne, was an admirer of Brunhoff who wrote a fond introduction to the first UK edition of The Story of Babar in 1934. Milne’s charming words stated, “If you love elephants, you will love Babar and Celeste. If you have never loved elephants, you will love them now. If you who are grown-up have never been fascinated by a picture book before, then this is the one which will fascinate you…I salute M. de Brunhoff. I am at his feet.” More recently Roger Sale examined the enduring fascination of English children’s literary books and characters in his edition of “Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B White”. Of the Babar stories he commented they “rightly rank with the Beatrix Potter books as the best ever made for very young children.” The artwork of Burnhoff and his son has received similar acclaim. There have been many major exhibitions of both father and son’s illustrations in Paris, New York, Japan and Toronto plus many others. The Morgan Library and Museum, New York holds the original The Story of Babar manuscript and artwork. The manuscripts and artwork for The Travels of Babar and Zephyr’s Holidays are held in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
Jean De Brunhoff clearly meets the critieria for creating a significant literary children’s character and his son secured the legacy of his father’s work. Babar continues to bring delight to many children’s (and if we will admit it, adults!) lives. Who needs more of an excuse to dip into a Babar book?