The Family Behind Babar
CHILD's Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Laurent de Brunhoff, talks about Babar's beginnings, the latest book in the series, and the timeless appeal of the famous elephant.
The story of Babar is one of strong family ties -- in more ways than one. Created in 1931 by Jean de Brunhoff, who wrote seven Babar books before he died in 1937 at age 37, the beloved tale of the gentlemanly elephant and his family and friends has been kept alive by his oldest son, Laurent, who was 12 when his father passed away. In 1946, Laurent, then a young man and a painter, continued what his father had started -- writing and illustrating Babar adventures, which have since been translated into 17 different languages and sold millions of copies all over the globe.
Today, at age 80, Laurent has more than 30 titles to his credit, including his latest, Babar's World Tour, published by Abrams in September 2005, and his wife, writer Phyllis Rose, is often a collaborator. Laurent, who retains his native French accent but makes his home in the U.S., has been careful to preserve his father's style so that few readers notice any difference between the watercolor illustrations of father and son. But that doesn't mean he hasn't added his own unique interests and humor. For example, Babar's Yoga for Elephants was inspired by Laurent's longstanding interest in the ancient practice before it became popular, and Babar's Museum of Art features famous paintings -- his personal favorites -- from a pachyderm's perspective. Here, the acclaimed author/illustrator, father of two, and grandfather of one shares with Child how Babar was born and why children today continue to be drawn to the kind, gentle elephant.
A Conversation With Laurent de Brunhoff
Q: Some fans know that your father created the first Babar books, but they may not know that the story actually originated with your mother. Can you tell us how Babar came to be?
A: It was a bedtime story from my mother. One night she told us [Laurent and his younger brother, Mathieu] the story of this little elephant whose mother was killed by a hunter. He escaped and ran to the city, then dressed like a human being and came back to his country. We were so excited by it. My father was a painter and he started to make illustrations for the story. He made a whole book. I think he discovered himself by doing that. His brother-in-law was a publisher, so they published this first book [The Story of Babar]. It was immediately a success.
My father actually wanted to have the name of his wife, C?cile de Brunhoff, on the title page with his name, but she said, "No, no, no. I know that you will do many more without me." And she was right because immediately after, he started the second one, Babar's Travels, and then Babar the King -- one after the other for six years. Then he died from tuberculosis, and it was after the war that I wanted to be a painter and the idea of having Babar be alive again was exciting to me.
Q: Did your mother contribute ideas for his other books?
A: I don't think so. Even in the first book, my father created the character of the Old Lady, who was not in my mother's story. And he gave Babar his name. In my mother's story, he was "b?b? ?l?phant."
Q: Was continuing the Babar stories a way for you to honor your father and keep his memory alive?
A: Yes. I wanted his creation to go on, and I tried to be as faithful as possible to his style.
Q: Most people probably can't tell the difference between your father's books and your own. But do you notice a difference?
A: It is possible for an artist to see that my father's construction of a double page, for instance, is very calm and well organized. Sometimes on my pages I like to have some movement and contradiction in the construction.
Q: In Babar's World Tour, Babar travels around the world with his wife, Celeste, and their children. How does this latest book reflect your personal interests?
A: My wife and I love to travel. We have been to all the places that are in the book. It seems like a lot when they are put one after the other like that, but within 20 years [of our lives], it is not that much.
Q: How do you know what children are going to be interested in?
A: All my life, when I was doing a book, I was not thinking, "I am doing a book for kids." I was just enjoying myself -- creating the book, the construction, the art.
Q: Is there an overall message that you hope children and parents get from your books?
A: The importance of love and family, no conflict and hatred. Babar is warm with his family. He never criticizes another person; he always accepts different styles.
Q: Several generations of children have grown up with Babar. What do you think is his lasting appeal? Why do children still love him so much?
A: Well, this is fascinating. I think you could say that teenagers nowadays have nothing in common with teenagers of the 30s or the 40s. But the little kids -- from ages 2 to 7, say -- they didn't change that much. They have the same needs. They are amused by the same things. I think that's why Babar is going on.