© Librairie Hachette 1966
January 10, 2011
Once upon a time—the 1930s, in France—there was born a dapper green-suited elephant who captured the imagination of generations of readers around the world and become one of the best-loved children's literary heroes of all time. Babar, who has sold over 8 million books to date, first appeared in a Parisian nursery one summer night as Cécile de Brunhoff invented an animal tale to lull her two young sons off to sleep. Cécile was married to a painter, Jean de Brunhoff, who went on to transform his wife's simple bedtime story into L’Histoire de Babar, le Petit Eléphant, the first Babar book, published in 1931.
De Brunhoff's charming faux-naïf illustrations and the captivating story of Babar the intrepid elephant were an instant hit. After his mother is killed by a hunter, Babar flees the jungle and finds safety in a big city—which, in de Brunhoff's simple line drawings, bears an uncanny resemblance to Paris. After many adventures he eventually returns to the jungle where he is crowned king and helps the elephants build their own Haussmannian city, Célesteville.
Published in the same year that the Exposition Coloniale was staged in Paris, Babar has been variously interpreted as an implicit endorsement of French colonialism and a satire of it. But whatever de Brunhoff's original political views, his ivory-tusked protagonist has eclipsed them for almost eight decades. After publishing just seven Babar tales, Jean de Brunhoff died of tuberculosis in 1937 at the age of 37. Several years later, his son Laurent de Brunhoff took up the story where his father had left off, publishing his first book, Babar et Ce Coquin d'Arthur, in 1946. The 85-year-old illustrator, based in New York, has created 37 more Babar stories to date, while his American wife, Phyllis, has succeeded Cécile de Brunhoff as the teller of the tales. The latest in the series, Babar's USA, was published by Abrams in fall 2008.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of France Today; updated in December 2010.
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