One of the most beloved characters in children’s literature is Babar the Elephant. Created from bedtime stories that his wife used to soothe an ill son, Jean de Brunhoff went on to write and illustrate six books which have delighted children since their publication in the 1930s. Brunhoff managed to convey important life events in a way that was meaningful to children and often reflected the personal life and philosophy of the creator. In Three Centuries of Children’s Books in Europe, Bettina Hurlimann commented that the author’s life is “inseparable from his books” and several critics believe that Babar is Brunhoff’s characterization of himself. It is possible to see images of his own life in his work and to imagine the inspirations that generated these final images:
Early life: Brunhoff was the last and fourth child of Maurice de Brunhoff, a publisher, and Marguerite Brunhoff. He was born on December 9th, 1899 in Paris, France.
War: His early schooling was at Protestant schools. After graduation, Brunhoff joined the French army at the end of World War I reaching the front lines when the war was nearly over.
Training: Deciding to become a professional artist, Brunhoff studied painting with Othon Friesz at the Acadamie de la Grand Chamiere in Montparnasse. He created portraits, landscapes, and still life drawings that are reflected in his Babar books.
Family: In 1924, Brunhoff married Cecile Sabour and, a talented pianist from a Catholic family. The couple had three sons: Laurent, born in 1925, Mathieu, born in 1926, and Thierry, born in 1934.
Illness: Diagnosed with tuberculosis at a tragically early age, Brunhoff was forced to move into a sanitarium in Switzerland to treat his increasingly poor health. Unable to return home, he rearranged the nature of his Babar stories, making Babar becoming a father himself. He adapted the stories to allow him to offer paternal advice for his own sons. Brunhoff died on October 16, 1937, at the young age of 38.
Jean de Brunhoff’s images portray a wide range of life experiences in a sensitive way that was quite rare and novel in it’s time. His work was well received by critics and remains iconic today. Maurice Sendak, who wrote an introduction to a 60th Anniversary Album of Babar, famously comments, “Babar is at the very heart of my conception of what turns a picture book into a work of art.… Beneath the pure fun, the originality of style, and the vivacity of imagination is a serious and touching theme: a father writing to his sons and voicing his natural concern for their welfare, for their lives … Jean’s bequest to his family, and the world, shines from the books.” It is no wonder that first editions of Jean de Brunhoff’s work are so treasured and valued.
To see more first edition illustrations and writings of Jean de Brunhoff click here
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 deZephir (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?
Rare and Antique Books holds many first editions of his early works, including those with introductions by A. A. Milne (UK – Methuen and American – Smith & Haas).
Someone recently challenged Barbara Chalk, the proprietor of Rare & Antique Books, to choose five of the best books for children from the Rare and Antique booksite. This is what she had to say.
Where do I start as I love them all! However, in the spirit of the task I have endeavoured to narrow them down to the following five which are of particular interest to me at the moment.
Miniature Editions of Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by John Tenniel 1907 & 1908
Of course I am cheating here as this is actually two books but they make such a charming pair I couldn’t separate them! The reason for their appeal is their size – they look like they have been given some of Alice’s size reducing potion! The original Tenniel’s illustrations are intact and in their original black and white format. In 1907 Macmillan marked the expiry of the copyright of Alice’s Adventuresby issuing several new editions, publicising them with a Punchcartoon captioned ‘Tenniel’s Alice Reigns Supreme’. “The Sixpenny Series” was the first of these in December of that year. In 1903 they issued the “Little Folks Edition” with new colour pictures of Tenniel and an abbreviated text. The “Illustrated Pocket Classic” followed in 1904. This miniature edition published in 1907 was a real success and remains a highly collectable edition. A charming pair of books.
A Gallery of Children A. A. Milne
A selection of the best children’s books must surely include an A. A. Milne book. The well known Winnie the Pooh books are very endearing and an easy choice. However, Milne produced a wide range of novels, plays and short stories which merit celebration. One of these is this charming collection of children’s fantasy stories written between his poetry book of “When We Were Very Young” 1924 and “Winnie The Pooh” 1926. It was his first book of prose for children. This hardcover book was first published in 1925 by the Stanley Paul & Co. London and the David McKay Company in Philadelphia. The illustrator Saida, otherwise known as H. Willebbek Le Mair, was initially famous for her illustrations for toothpaste advertisements in magazines. Her delightful pictures complement Milne’s twelve stories making this edition a wonderful demonstration of the writing talents of A. A. Milne.
The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman 1901
Chosen for its perfect condition this little book is absolutely charming with delightful illustrations. Much of the appeal of the book lies in its size as the book measures only 5-5 3/4 inches in size making it appear like a toy book. Reading the book has an element of anticipation of what is to come as the writing and images are only one side of the pages. The book was initially published by Grant Richards as a series of small formatted books called The Dumpy Books for Children between 1897 and 1904. The classic and well known story is of a little boy and of course the terminology within the test is now obsolete and outdated. Yet in it’s time the book was a children’s favourite for more than half a century and so serves as a reminder of historical social change.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis 1950-1956
Again I think I am cheating by including more than one book! Yet this set of seven fantasy stories have featured in thousands of children’s bookshelves – over 100 million copies published in 47 languages. It remains a classic children’s work of literature covering themes of religion, race and gender and has been a source of controversial literary debate. Pauline Baynes’s fine pen and ink original illustrations, especially the maps of Narnia, are still used in publications today. The Chronicles tells of several children who are magically transported to the world of Narnia to protect the lion, Asian, from Evil and restore him to his rightful place on the throne. The adventures cover the entire history of Narnia ending in The Last Battle. The first five books were originally published by Geoffrey Bles over a few years. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe published first in 1950 and , although complete, the next books Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Horse and His Boy, were issued one at a time from 1951 to 1954. The Silver Chair was written after The Horse and His Boy but published after it in 1953. The Bodley Head published the last two books, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle in 1955 and 1956. Again the Magician’s Nephew was written after, but published before The Last Battle. There has been much discussion over the years as to the order of reading the books as some publishers have produced them in chronological rather than first published order. Whichever way they are read they still remain an enchanting read!
The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, with a preface by A. A. Milne 1934
Babar the elephant is one of the most delightful children’s illustrated books. This edition has the added value of an introduction by the author of Winnie the Pooh, A. A. Milne. In fact it was A. A. Milne who initially brought the little elephant to the attention of the British children’s book market. Milne first saw the French edition of the book at a friend’s house in 1932. He was so enthralled by the detailed illustrations and story that he persuaded his publishers, Methuen, to produce an English version. A. A. Milne wrote a charming introduction which helped to make the first edition an immediate success. “If you love elephants you will love Babar. If you have never loved elephants you will love them now. If you are a grown-up and have never been fascinated by a picture book before, then this is the one that will fascinate you. If you are a child do not take these enchanting people to your heart; if you do not spend delightful hours making sure that no detail of their adventures has escaped you; then you deserve to wear gloves and be kept off wet grass for the rest of your life. I can say no more. I salute M. De. Brunhoff. I am at his feet. A. Milne”.
Five of the best books for children? Well, they are my choice from the Rare and Antique book store today. As I love them all if you ask me tomorrow the list may well be different. See other Children’s books for more choices.