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The Royal Family

Babar’s Picnic

by Laurent de Brunhoff
Random House, 39 pp. (1949; out of print)

Babar’s Visit to Bird Island

by Laurent de Brunhoff
Random House, 39 pp. (1952; out of print)

Bonhomme

by Laurent de Brunhoff
Pantheon, 47 pp. (1965; out of print)

Animal Land: The Creatures of Children’s Fiction

by Margaret Blount
Morrow, 336 pp. (1975; out of print)

1.

For over seventy years, Babar has been the most famous elephant in the world—and the most controversial. He has been praised as a benevolent monarch, an ideal parent, and a model of family affection, loyalty, justice, good manners, and civilized living. He has also been damned as a sexist, an elitist, a colonialist, and a racist. It has even been proposed that he deserves to be burned alive: see Should We Burn Babar? by Herbert Kohl (1995). Clearly, a figure who arouses such intense and conflicting opinions must be more than the ordinary hero of a children’s picture book: he must represent important and sometimes contradictory views of both childhood and society.

The complexity of King Babar’s world, and some of its contradictions, are partly the result of the fact that his long life has been chronicled by two different biographers. Babar’s history began in Paris in 1931, when the pianist Cecile de Brunhoff invented a bedtime story about a baby elephant for her sons, who were then five and six years old. The next day the boys repeated the tale to their father, the artist Jean de Brunhoff, who was inspired to write it down, expand it, illustrate it, and publish it in 1931 as The Story of Babar. Over the next eight years he wrote six more Babar books which, like the first, became immensely popular. When he died in 1937, at thirty-seven, the series lapsed. But seven years later his elder son, Laurent, then only twenty but already becoming known as an abstract painter, took up the story. Since then Laurent de Brunhoff has produced over thirty books about Babar and his family and friends, and six with other protagonists, of whom the most famous is a gentle and elusive little man called Bonhomme who lives at the top of a pink mountain.1

Babar, of course, both is and is not an elephant. Or rather, he is an elephant only in the sense that the characters in Aesop’s and Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables are animals. Essentially, all of them stand for human types and have the traits that humans, sometimes arbitrarily, have assigned to them. (La Fontaine’s crow, for example, is vain and easily deceived, though real crows are neither conceited nor foolish.) As an elephant, Babar is traditionally strong and wise and has a remarkable memory.2 He is also naturally large and powerful, unlike many animal heroes of children’s picture books, who tend to be smaller than humans. From the start, most original editions of the Babar books have appropriately been elephant-sized, just as Beatrix Potter’s tales of rabbits and mice are very small.

Babar is not only both animal and human, he is both a child and an adult. His name makes this clear: it combines the French terms for father (papa) and infant (bébé).3 One sign of his ambiguous position is that, unlike the other adult elephants in the story, he and his wife, Celeste, have very small tusks even after they are married and have become parents. They rule a kingdom, but they also enjoy many childish pleasures, as the British critic Margaret Blount has noted in Animal Land:

Babar does what most small children would like to do—joins in the adult world on a child’s terms, and gets away with it…. He can wear grown-up clothes, ride up and down in the lift, go fishing, drive a car, marry Celeste and become King of the Jungle all because his real self is hidden behind an animal hide and he is neither child nor adult but a bit of both….

Another part of the appeal of the Babar series seems to be that, after the first few books, they are about an ideal happy family in a nearly ideal world. Babar and his family visit distant places and even go to outer space, and sometimes they face trouble or danger; but everything always ends well. Their ideal universe also, very early in the series, becomes timeless. Babar is born, grows up, is educated, marries, becomes king, brings the advantages of civilization to his country, and has three children. After that, time stops. Over fifty years pass, and King Babar and Queen Celeste have a fourth child, but nobody grows any older or dies. Babar’s cousin Arthur remains an adolescent, and the children never reach puberty. As Margaret Blount puts it, Babar exists “in a perpetual, infantile middle age.”

In classic juvenile literature the protagonist is usually a child who leaves home and family, has adventures, and returns home (Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, Where the Wild Things Are). Sometimes two or more children are featured (Peter Pan, Mary Poppins), and occasionally the hero or heroine ends up with a new and better family (Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter). In most of the Babar books, however, the family itself is the protagonist. It is an extended three-generation family, in which Babar’s early patroness, the Old Lady, and his wise elderly councilor, Cornelius, play the part of grandparents. Arthur is the impulsive adolescent cousin, and Zephir the monkey his mischievous friend.

Babar goes out into the world alone in the first book, but from then on he is almost always accompanied by family members. Together they go to Paris, to America, on vacation to the seashore or the mountains, on hikes in the country, and to another planet. Sometimes one of the children is the center of the story, but the entire family is almost always present and involved, especially at the inevitable happy ending. In this, of course, the books are closer to the real experience of most of their child readers, which may partly account for their popularity.

The environment of Babar is that of the prosperous, well-educated, art-loving French bourgeoisie. Babar and his family go to the theater and hear concerts of both classical and popular music. They favor upper-middle-class sports: they sail, play tennis, swim and ski, practice yoga,4 go to the races, and camp and hike in the mountains. Good manners are important, and so are good clothes. Jean de Brunhoff’s brother was the editor of French Vogue, and his brother-in-law a famous fashion journalist, and the costumes of Celeste and her daughters are consistently chic. The first thing Babar does after he is befriended by the Old Lady is to go to a large, apparently expensive department store, where he buys a bright green suit, a derby hat, and shoes. His first gift to his subjects is two sets of apparel each—one for work and one for play. Before they put them on the elephants walk on all fours; afterward they stand upright. In The Travels of Babar (1932), when Babar and Celeste lose their clothes and are stranded on a reef in the ocean, they also lose their quasi-human identity, and the captain of the ship that rescues them can sell them to a circus.

Babar’s is an ideal world, a kind of upper-middle-class French Utopia whose capital is literally a heavenly city—as its name, Celesteville, indicates. Its inhabitants have various occupations, but they only work in the mornings: the afternoons are devoted to sports and recreation, and to the arts. They live in identical grass-roofed cottages, except for Babar and the Old Lady, who have larger houses at the top of a hill, near public buildings that include a school, a library, a sports complex, and a theater. During the over seventy years since the founding of Celesteville the city has grown considerably: it now includes substantial mansions, skyscrapers, and a large art museum.5

Though no one ages in Celesteville, modern inventions and modern attitudes gradually appear. Styles in fashion and car design change; motorbikes, television, helicopters, and hang gliders become visible, and computers and cell phones are surely on their way. Queen Celeste remains a traditional wife and mother who stays home and devotes herself to her children; her older daughter, Flora, is at first also conventionally feminine, passive, and fearful, but in later books she gradually gains in courage and enterprise. Her sister, Isabelle, is a thoroughly modern little girl, slimmer and more active than Flora. She wears in-line skates, listens to music on a Walkman, and is eager to explore the world. Eventually, in The Rescue of Babar (1993), she journeys to a strange civilization and helps to free her father from captivity.

As Ann Hildebrand, who has written the most recent study of Babar, points out, the ambiance of the books is generally Gallic. The illustrations show berets, Citroëns, Peugeots, crêperies, and croissants, and the signs on the buildings are in French. Babar and his family visit Paris, a seaside resort that suggests Normandy or Brittany, and a château in the Dordogne. Ariel Dorfman, in The Empire’s Old Clothes (1983), has suggested that the attitude toward childhood in the early Babar books is also typically French. “Universal bliss is assured by grown-up figures who never make mistakes, and are unsusceptible to criticism.” For Americans, he believes, childhood is an age for fun and adventures, an end in itself, whereas for the Frenchit is a period of probation. This may be so in the early Babar books, but as time passes (or rather stops) the implied message changes, and in the later books Babar’s children and his cousin Arthur enjoy a perpetual happy and adventurous youth.

2.

In the Babar books, the kingdom of the elephants is not the only possible society. Besides the human world, containing recognizable places like Paris, New York, Chicago, and North Africa, there are separate civilizations of birds and monkeys and a planet in outer space whose inhabitants look a little like elephants. All these places have much in common with Celesteville. Their citizens are friendly to strangers; they live in comfortable and attractive dwellings under the care of a benevolent ruler, and they enjoy public events.

In Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar and Zephir (1936), the Republic of the Monkeys is ruled by a president, General Huc. He wears a Napoleonic hat and has a fairly large but not very efficient army, whose uniforms suggest those of nineteenth-century France or Italy: his soldiers wear red pants, white jackets, and plumed kepis. The principal city, Monkeyville, is on the sea and in a temperate climate. The monkeys wear fashionable clothes and live in small but comfortable houses hung from trees: they have a railway station, cars, a restaurant, and a hairdresser. On a nearby island there is a collection of strange-looking but essentially harmless “monsters,” whose greatest fear is boredom. Zephir manages to entertain them brilliantly, telling stories, dressing as a clown and doing tricks, and playing waltzes and polkas on his violin. The overall impression is of a Mediterranean seaside resort with an offshore island populated by eccentric and demanding tourists.

Laurent de Brunhoff’s Babar’s Visit to Bird Island (1951) portrays a simpler and more rural world. It is a strikingly beautiful and colorful book, and one of the author’s favorites: according to him, it was inspired by childhood visits to Cap Ferret, south of Bordeaux. The island is roughly bird-shaped and ruled by a king and queen who resemble crested cockatoos. As in Babar the King (1933), the inhabitants all have different and appropriate trades: the pelican, with his large beak, is a postman; the pheasants are tailors; the long-legged flamingo and stork are dancers; the parrot and the peacock are actors; the vulture is a butcher; and chickens manage the dairy. There are no monsters, though at one point Babar’s daughter Flora is threatened by an enormous fish. It is a freer and less organized society than that of the monkeys: entertainment and the enjoyment of life are foremost, and only Babar and his family wear clothes. The suggestion is of a small semitropical island, with colorful, pleasure-loving inhabitants of many races, where one can enjoy deep-sea fishing and outdoor banquets.

Twenty years later Laurent de Brunhoff took Babar and his family to outer space, in Babar Visits Another Planet (1972). This time the elephants were not politely invited, as with Bird Island and Monkeyville, but kidnapped. They were sucked into an unmanned rocket ship that took many days to reach its goal: a strange reddish planet where the ground is soft and mushy like caramel and all buildings are hung from red balloons. The inhabitants look like small, thin, pear-shaped elephants with curly ears; they wear clothes and walk on their hind legs. Civilization is highly developed, with indoor swimming pools, an automatic fountain that serves cakes and soft drinks, and a supermarket/shopping mall with motorized carts. It is a crowded urban culture, with an emphasis on competition and material goods, and the city has an Oriental appearance. Babar’s children sleep in “little wall niches” that resemble the minihotels in Japanese cities, and the signs in the supermarket appear to be written in Asian characters. It is also a highly ordered and homogeneous society: the curly-eared elephants “speak as with one voice, which sounds like a clarinet.”

The reddish planet is in many ways more alien, and possibly more perilous, than the worlds of the monkeys or the birds—just as Japan is less familiar to French children than a French or Italian seaside resort. In Monkeyville and on Bird Island there was no language barrier, but here Babar cannot understand anyone until the end of the story, And though the curly-eared elephants are friendly and hospitable at first, they become very upset when Arthur accidentally breaks one of their red balloons, and Babar and his family are advised to return to Earth immediately to avoid danger.

The most interesting though least agreeable alternative society in the Babar books is that of the rhinos. It also, unlike the other alien worlds, appears many times. The rhinos’ territory borders that of the elephants, but though they are Babar’s neighbors they are often opposed to him. They are large, clumsy, and subject to fits of aggression and impulsive greed. They have bad manners and no apparent interest in art or music. When they first appear they, like most of the elephants, walk on four legs and do not wear clothes, but later they too appear to have become civilized. They have very bad taste, however: they like vulgar patterns and silly hats. Their king, Rataxes, wears loud-print suits or comic-opera uniforms.

The city of the rhinos is a large metropolis, with square brutalist public buildings that seem to be constructed of gray cement in a semi-Egyptian style. There are no flower gardens, and most of the houses have the shape of square lampshades; the palace resembles an Inca temple crossed with a bunker. Rataxes’ name is carved on each side of the palace steps, with a letter left off from the beginning or the end each time, so that it deconstructs into words that include TAXES, AXES, and RAT.

Some readers have suggested that the country of the rhinos—which is more or less next door, and whose army wears black helmets and black boots that recall the costume of German soldiers in both world wars—represents Eastern Europe, or even specifically Germany. Laurent de Brunhoff has denied this, but he agrees that the rhinos are essentially the opposite of the elephants, who are known for their peaceful nature, polite behavior, and love of beauty, flowers, recreation, and the arts. The rhinos, by contrast, are crude, impulsively aggressive, and prejudiced, lacking in both good taste and good manners.

We first hear of the rhinos in the second book of Jean de Brunhoff’s original series, The Travels of Babar. While Babar and Celeste are on their honeymoon, their young cousin Arthur plays a trick on Rataxes, tying a firecracker to his tail. Though the wise old elephant Cornelius tries to make peace, Rataxes, who is “revengeful and mean,” refuses his apologies and declares war. At first, the rhinos are victorious, and when Babar and Celeste return they find the countryside devastated in a manner that recalls the battlefields of World War I:

A few broken trees! Is that all that is left of the great forest? There are no more flowers, no more birds. Babar and Celeste are very sad and weep as they see their ruined country.

Many elephants have been wounded, and are being treated in an outdoor field hospital by nurses in World War I costumes. Meanwhile, Rataxes is preparing another attack. Babar saves the day by a stratagem: he paints eyes on the rumps of his biggest soldiers, and colors their tails red, while Arthur makes red and green wigs for them out of leaves. Now, when they advance backward, they look like monsters. The rhinos are terrified and retreat in disorder—essentially defeated by innovative fashion design.

The antagonism between the elephants and the rhinos increases in Laurent de Brunhoff’s Babar and the Wully-Wully (1975). In this story, Babar’s daughter Flora discovers a small, friendly, very rare creature with soft green fur. The Wully-Wully is so totally lovable and desirable that he is kidnapped by Rataxes and imprisoned in the city of the rhinos, from which he has to be rescued by Zephir. But almost as soon as the Wully-Wully returns to Celesteville, the rhino soldiers attack, “sweeping through Celesteville like a hurricane,” and carrying off the Wully-Wully again. War is about to be declared, but Flora saves the day by going alone to see King Rataxes and persuading him that the Wully-Wully needs his freedom. Amazingly, he agrees, and the last picture shows Flora and Rataxes together, rocking the Wully-Wully in a rope swing,

In 1978, in Babar’s Mystery, one of the most exciting stories in the series, another disagreeable rhino appears. This time he is the leader of a criminal gang of low-life crocodiles; he wears a loud checked suit and smokes cigars. (The crocodiles are equally inelegant, in shabby tailcoats and sneakers.) He hangs out at the seaside resort of Celesteville-by-the Sea, which seems to be located in Brittany, near Mont-St.-Michel, a picture of which appears in one double-page spread. The piano from the hotel is stolen, then Babar’s red convertible, and finally the statue of an elephant from the town square. But in the end Arthur, with Babar’s help, catches the thieves.

Out in the human world, as time passed, borders came down, and both France and Germany joined the European Union. Laurent de Brunhoff’s attitude toward the country of the rhinos also seems to have changed. “I wanted to show that not all rhinos are bad,” he recently told me. The result was Babar’s Little Girl Makes a Friend (1990), in which Babar’s youngest daughter, Isabelle, meets the agreeable Vic, the little son of King Rataxes. But not all rhinos are good, either, and when Rataxes discovers the friendship he is furious. “We don’t like elephants in Rhino City!” he shouts, and his wife is “terribly angry.” “You cannot be friends with that little elephant,” she tells her son. At the end of the story Rataxes is somewhat reconciled, but Lady Rataxes remains enraged and prejudiced. “Keep your daughter away from our son!” she says to Babar—but the next day, the children are back together. The moral seems to be that though adult rhinos are often aggressive and prejudiced, there may be hope for the younger generation.

In Babar’s world, women are not necessarily more tolerant and peace-loving. A couple of years later, in Babar’s Battle (1992), Babar remarks that Rataxes hasn’t bothered the elephants for a long time. He is contradicted by Celeste, who says, “That could change in a second…. Rataxes has caused trouble before, and he could again. I don’t trust him.” And in fact a “rhino witch” named Macidexia, who lives in a cave underneath the lake near Celesteville, and has terrible taste in clothes, has been urging Rataxes to destroy the elephants for some time. She inspires him to drain the lake, causing fish and plants to die. Babar discovers the plot and telephones Rataxes to complain, but Rataxes replies by declaring war. The elephants and the rhinos prepare for battle, both sides wearing medieval armor, whereupon Babar challenges Rataxes to single combat. He wins by blinding Rataxes with the reflections from his shield: metaphorically, reflected aggression destroys the aggressor. Peace and order are restored—though (at least according to the illustrations) no rhinos are invited to the big swimming party at the end of the book.

3.

Though Babar does not apparently age after the first three books in the series, he does change. When he first becomes king, as Ann Hildebrand says, he is “a courteous, responsible adult, a benevolent, honest leader, and a faithful, caring husband and father.” In the face of loss or danger he remains steady, rational, and capable. But in the Sixties, Seventies, and early Eighties, he does not always retain his calm self-confidence. In Babar Loses His Crown (1967) he also loses his cool: he becomes sad and disturbed and unable to eat dinner, and declares that he cannot go out in public. “What will it look like, this evening at the Opera?” he asks pathetically. “The king of the elephants, without his crown?” Later, in Babar and the Ghost (1981), he is baffled and confused by a mischievous spirit that only children can see. His children take advantage of the situation to become rude and play tricks on adults, and life in the capital city is disrupted by traffic jams and fender-benders caused by an apparently driverless car. It is not until the very end of the story that Babar manages to get the ghost to leave Celesteville.

A few years later, in The Rescue of Babar (1993), our hero undergoes what might be called a midlife crisis. Hidden within the crater of an extinct volcano not far from Celesteville, it turns out, is a beautiful city. Its steep hills and semiclassical architecture, Laurent de Brunhoff tells me, were inspired by Borabadur in Java—to me, however, the city resembles San Francisco. The elephants who live there have striped ears and wear togas. They are especially fond of the arts: Isabelle pays for a double ice-cream cone by singing “Happy Birthday.”

Isabelle has come to this city alone to rescue her father, Babar, who has been kidnapped by the striped elephants so that he can tell them stories. He is imprisoned on a high ledge, where he sleeps in a hammock like the one he was rocked in when he was a baby in the first picture of The Story of Babar. But when Isabelle tells him “We have to get out of here, back to Celesteville,” he does not want to go.

What for?” said Babar. “It’s very pleasant here, and the striped elephants treat me with the greatest courtesy. Their music is enchanting, their food is delicious, and they only want me to tell them stories. Why should I leave?”

But you are King of the Elephants in Celesteville!” exclaimed Isabelle.

Let someone else be king,” said Babar, and he fell back asleep.

At this point Babar has apparently regressed to childhood, abandoning his responsibilities as a ruler. It turns out later that in fact he has been drugged by doctored watermelon smoothies, and when their effect wears off he is willing to escape and return to Celesteville. But in the picture of Babar sneaking away from the city of the striped elephants at night, with Isabelle and her three animal companions, he is the only one who looks back—and while they appear happy and determined, his expression is one of doubt and regret.

Some readers who know that a few years before this book appeared, Laurent de Brunhoff moved from France to America, have seen The Rescue of Babar as a roman à clef. The striped elephants, in this view, are the Americans whose enthusiasm for the story-teller is so great that they want him here among them, in a country isolated from the rest of the world by its geography. However, since The Rescue of Babar our hero has clearly regained his poise and self-confidence. Ann Hildebrand, in fact, connects this change to Laurent de Brunhoff’s move to America and second marriage to the American writer and professor Phyllis Rose.6

Just as some fans of the Babar books have interpreted them as social, political, and personal fables, others have not hesitated to consider them as art and literature on the highest level. Nicholas Fox Weber, in The Art of Babar (1989), points out that both Jean and Laurent were art students and serious painters, and sees parallels between their work and that of classic European artists. There are comparisons to (in alphabetical order) Bonnard, De Kooning, Delacroix, Dufy, Jan van Eyck, Giacometti, Klee, Matisse, Pop Art, and Rubens. Laurent de Brunhoff says that in his view some of these comparisons “go too far.” But it is also true that the landscape panoramas of Jean de Brunhoff’s books sometimes recall the paintings of Dufy, and that the colors in many of Laurent de Brunhoff’s illustrations—the intense reds and pinks and golden yellows, the flat greens—suggest those of Bonnard or Matisse.

Weber sees parallels between the original Story of Babar and the fiction of writers like Stendhal and Balzac. When Babar arrives in Paris as an adolescent, he is befriended by a very rich old lady. The Old Lady is “a maternal figure, whose role is to provide the younger generation with worldly amenities”:

But she is also something more. In a way her presence in the Babar books likens them to every French tale in which a young man from the country has a liaison with an older, more worldly woman. Babar is a kept man, the Old Lady his contented provider.

Nicholas Fox Weber also speculates on the differences between the Babar books of father and son. Although Laurent “has upheld the tradition of Babar through its characters and settings and maintained its essential personality,” he feels that his is “a new, lighter, brighter universe,” “highly charged, fluid, and animated,” in which “painterly qualities have become more important than narrative ones.” He remarks perceptively that in Jean de Brunhoff’s world the danger level is high. This is true: Babar’s mother is shot by a hunter, the previous king of the elephants dies by eating a poisoned mushroom, and soldiers are wounded in battle. In Babar the King, the Old Lady is bitten by a snake and Cornelius is injured in a fire that destroys his house. That night Babar has his famous dream in which Misfortune appears in the shape of “a frightful old woman surrounded by flabby, ugly beasts”—Fear, Despair, Indolence, Sickness, Anger, Stupidity, Ignorance, Cowardice, Laziness, and Discouragement (a kind of long-nosed white pig). It takes twelve winged elephant angels to put them to flight. In Laurent’s books, by contrast, “the worst sort of occurrence consists of a character getting temporarily lost of slightly injured…. Above all, life is a series of joys.”

Though the Babar books have been read and loved by children everywhere for over seventy years, they have also recently met with severe criticism. For example, they have been called antifeminist. This attack, however, focuses on the early stories, written at a time when it was generally believed that women were essentially wives and mothers, whose careers should be limited to nursing, teaching, and the arts. Celeste dances in a circus, but only under duress, and once she has children she stays home and takes care of them. The Old Lady serves as a nurse and a teacher, and at one point is said to be writing her memoirs. Later on, however, the female characters, particularly Isabelle, are much more active.

Herbert Kohl, the author of Should We Burn Babar?, condemns the books, though reluctantly, as elitist. As a child he found them charming and wonderful; now, however, he sees that they glorify capitalism and the ruling class:

The Rich Lady has money, lots of it. The source of her wealth is unclear…. It is clear that in the book the use of money and the earning of it are two totally different matters, and that it is perfectly normal and in fact delightful that some people have wealth they do not have to work for.

Kohl deplores Babar’s “malleability and the good humor with which he jumps into becoming a well-dressed rich person-like elephant.” He also complains that when Babar is chosen king because “he ‘has learned so much living among men.’ …All we are shown of his learning is that he knows how to choose clothes, order a meal at a restaurant, and add 2+2.” Though his early exposure to The Story of Babar apparently did not turn Kohl into an elitist, he believes that “uncritical reading of the book is so potentially damaging that it should be withheld from children when possible.”7

The charge of colonialism is made most strongly by Ariel Dorfman. According to him, Babar is the primitive African who becomes a European and returns to “build a utopia with the willing aid of his native brothers.” But his effort “is none other than the fulfillment of the dominant countries’ colonial dream.” In this dream, “the new ruler must come from the outside, a native instructed in the ways of men.” The Babar books, Dorfman believes, teach the false moral that if backward countries imitate the more advanced countries and import technological know-how, they will improve their lot. What is left out of the story is the “plundering, racism, undevelopment, and misery” that colonial policy often brings. This is of course true in a sense, but it is a charge that can be leveled at many utopian visions, and at almost all children’s picture books, which normally portray a better world than the one we live in.

The accusation of racism in Babar rests largely on two books published before 1950. Today, the drawings of what the texts refer to as “cannibals” (The Travels of Babar, 1932) and “savages” (Babar’s Picnic, 1949) seem shocking. When these books first appeared, however, much of both adult and children’s culture was naively racist. White performers blacked their faces to resemble caricatures of African-Americans, and a recurrent cartoon situation of the 1930s and 1940s featured a pair of missionaries in a cook pot; Doctor Doolittle and Little Black Sambo were popular and much-admired children’s books, and thousands of English and American children owned Golliwog or Mammy dolls.

Jean de Brunhoff had drawn caricatured Africans in The Travels of Babar, and they must have seemed a reasonable subject for his son Laurent, who was only twenty-three at the time Babar’s Picnic was written. Soon, however, as people all over the world became aware of the hateful and harmful stereotyping of not only African but Asian and Native American people, Laurent was one of the first children’s book artists to make amends and include realistic drawings of black people in his public scenes. In Babar Comes to America (1965) there are African-Americans on the street in Chicago, New York, and Detroit: they are shown building automobiles, fishing from a pier along with whites, and at a Hollywood party. While in New York, Babar goes to hear “Theodorus Priest” (Thelonious Monk) and his jazz quartet, which includes two white and two black players.

For a long time Laurent de Brunhoff has regretted his early drawings of African “savages”; he decided years ago that Babar’s Picnic will never be reprinted. Yet Random House, the original publisher of Jean de Brunhoff, continues to issue The Travels of Babar, with its stereotyped black “cannibals,” and some adult readers still complain of its bias: the description of the book on the current Amazon site calls it “as far from politically correct as you can get.” Fortunately, this has not prevented millions of children—and adults—from enjoying the other Babar books, many of which are now being reprinted in beautiful new editions by Harry N. Abrams.8

  1. 1

    Friends of Laurent de Brunhoff, as well as some readers, have felt that there was a personal connection between Bonhomme and his creator, and de Brunhoff admits that he has a special feeling for him.

  2. 2

    In this he resembles the elephant-headed Indian god Ganesh, who is the patron of writers and a favorite with children.

  3. 3

    Babar was the name of a sixteenth-century Indian king; but Laurent de Brunhoff says his father was probably not aware of this when he began the series. Currently, BaBar is also the name given to an electronic testing program used in laboratories.

  4. 4

    See Laurent de Brunhoff, Babar’s Yoga for Elephants (Abrams, 2002), a guidebook that has proved extremely popular for beginners. As one fan put it to me, “If an elephant can do it, so can I.”

  5. 5

    See Laurent de Brunhoff, Babar’s Museum of Art (Abrams, 2003). This museum contains famous paintings from all over the world, but all the figures in them are elephants.

  6. 6

    The text of The Rescue of Babar is copyrighted by Phyllis Rose; and since this time, she has continued to collaborate with her husband.

  7. 7

    Like many would-be censors, Kohl has a low opinion of children’s ability to think and judge for themselves as he once did.

  8. 8

    ln the 1980s, after Laurent de Brunhoff’s friend Bob Bernstein was no longer president of Random House, the new management allowed many of the Babar books to go out of print. In 1993, Laurent broke off his connection with the firm, and returned to painting: his watercolors have been shown in a New York gallery. For seven years, no new Babar books appeared. Then, in 2000, Laurent regained the rights to his work and moved to Abrams, who has not only published the last three titles, but begun reissuing earlier ones in large, beautifully printed editions./p>

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