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Babar : A Legendary Elephant King of the Forest Has Taken Up U.S. Residency With His Growing Family and His Illustrator

December 24, 1989|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I wanted this character who was my friend to live again after the death of my father," de Brunhoff said, adding that he wanted to remain in Babar's world, "both a utopia and a gentle satire on the society of men."

For a time, none of Babar's many admirers knew that de Brunhoff had taken over for his father. They assumed that the hiatus between books had been caused by World War II. Often, de Brunhoff recalled, "I met people who were very surprised to see that the author of the Babar books was such a young man, since Babar dated from the 1930s. They expected me to have a long white beard."

But now de Brunhoff is nearly twice his father's age. "Sometimes that is an eerie feeling," he said. "I've done so many books that I no longer have to think of being faithful to the tradition. Babar appears at the tip of my pencil as if I had invented him myself."

He concedes that he brought "a new dimension to Babar, since the world I live in is no longer the world of my father." But the calm rules of order that govern Babar's kingdom, which de Brunhoff calls "a liberal society of elephants," have remained constant. Babar has a definite philosophy, and that, too, has not changed over the years, he said.

"I think he is--how can I say that?--I think he is a very wise king of elephants," de Brunhoff said. "He knows what is good and what is bad. He is very respectful. He respects everybody.

"There is really a special warmth in Babar's world," he continued. "There is the family love--everybody loves everybody else. Little kids love to find in books this kind of warm atmosphere that they need so badly."

Children gravitate to Babar and his family because they seem solid and dependable, de Brunhoff believes. "Maybe they prefer the teddy bear or the rabbit to pet, but they like the elephants because they are funny," he said. "At the same time, there is something about the weight and massiveness of their body which is very reassuring."

Praised as a calm, clear-headed ruler, Babar has nonetheless not been without his critics. Novelist-sociologist Ariel Dorfman once attacked the elephant king as "an imperialist expression of the Western world." Feminists have charged that Celeste presents an overly passive role model of women. One book, "Babar's Picnic," was faulted for alleged racism in the way it depicted African natives. And fellow writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak took aim at Babar for failing to deal adequately with his grief upon his mother's death.

In response to the first criticism, de Brunhoff mixes French and English as he allows that " Mais , there is some truth." The first Babar book was "typically colonialist," he said, but that is because "it was written in the '30s, when French colonialism was at its peak. That was normal thinking then."

Although de Brunhoff believes that "all the animals are equal," he said, someone "like Mr. Dorfman" might say that "there are still animals, like the camels, who are a different class. But this is nonsense. These are stories, not social theory. You need some animals on four legs."

As for the notion of racism, de Brunhoff admitted that he had "pictured some African blacks as very stereotyped figures." But again, he explained, "that was the stereotype of the '30s. I did not question it." On reflection, he bowed to the objections. "Finally, we dropped the book."

Celeste does play a somewhat submissive role, de Brunhoff said; she is something of a queenly elephant housewife. But he has great hopes for the newest member of the Babar family, Isabelle, a spunky, curious kid who tools about on roller skates and wears a Walkman.

Of the complaints from his old friend Sendak, de Brunhoff said he was able to quiet them. "I calmed him down," he said. "I said bluntly that the mother died to leave the little hero to struggle with life on his own."

De Brunhoff takes psychoanalytical rebukes with a grain of salt, he said. He could psychoanalyze Babar, but why? "I don't look for some special subconscious symbolism," he said. "It isn't there."

Interest in Babar has surged recently, de Brunhoff said, because the elephant has become the star of a cable TV series on HBO. And though a feature film about Babar released in July was not especially successful, the development of Babar "merchandising"--products such as T-shirts and stuffed toys--has helped boost the beast's recognition factor.

Still, de Brunhoff said, perfectly serious, "Babar would never get a big head."

Nor, it seems, would Babar be upset by much of anything. Four years ago, de Brunhoff uprooted the forest of Babar and moved it from France to the United States. The reason was eminently French, which is to say that de Brunhoff had met and fallen in love with Phyllis Rose, a writer and historian who is a professor of English at Wesleyan.

The move to this rock-solid New England village had little effect on de Brunhoff. "As I work with my imagination, I could work anywhere," he said.

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