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Babar the Elephant Still Reigns at Age 61 : Publishing: The popular children's character has spawned about 300 products.

May 19, 1991|MARILYN AUGUST | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PARIS — In his seventh decade as king of the elephants, Babar has survived competition from ninja turtles, become a movie star and reached new heights of popularity with French children.

Signs of Babarmania are everywhere: baby bloomers and kiddy perfume, coat racks and bath towels.

Grandparents who read Babar stories in their own childhoods pay small fortunes for wagons and chairs decorated with the green-suited elephant.

About 300 Babar products are sold by 70 licensed companies around the world.

In France, Babar's native soil, the 61-year-old elephant has captured youthful imaginations like no fictional character since Asterix the Gaul embodied the national spirit in comic strips.

A poll of 5- and 6-year-olds conducted by a television station found that 88% knew about Babar. Only Mickey Mouse fared better.

Bookstores carry Babar editions for every budget and all ages, including plastic ones for toddlers who chew them first.

"Le Triomphe de Babar" has been a hit at movie theaters since its world premiere in February. An animated television series created in 1989 is shown twice a week in France.

Last fall saw the launching of Le Journal de Babar, a weekly magazine featuring games, pictures and new stories about life in Celesteville, where Babar is the wise, virtuous ruler.

Babar was born into an upper-class French family one summer night in 1930. To calm her two young sons, Laurent and Mathieu, at bedtime, Cecile de Brunhoff invented the tale of a small, orphaned elephant who flees the jungle, learns the ways of man and returns triumphantly to be crowned king.

The boys' father, painter Jean de Brunhoff, illustrated the story, which enjoyed instant success when published in 1931. De Brunhoff wrote and illustrated six more volumes before he died in 1937 at age 38.

Laurent, who was 13, finished the drawings for the last volume. Nine years later, he made Babar his own.

"I took Babar up because I wanted to bring back to life a childhood friend," De Brunhoff, 66, said in a telephone interview. "Babar was like a brother."

Since his father's death, he has written 24 Babar books, which have been translated into 17 languages and sold millions of copies.

His mother wasn't "a real story-teller," De Brunhoff said, and "I think Babar was kind of a fluke." He said he doesn't remember her expressing a desire to create more Babar adventures after the first one became a hit.

She is thrilled by Babar's international success, he said.

De Brunhoff said Babar appeals to children because he is open and fair.

"Babar has retained a combination of kindness and wisdom that hasn't changed in 30 years and that's especially reassuring for children," De Brunhoff said.

"He belongs to a close-knit social group, a family of elephants who live in a warm, friendly atmosphere. Children have a basic need for tenderness, especially with all the violence in the world around them and on television." "He's really human, if I may say so," De Brunhoff said. "He accepts other people as they are. He's not aggressive or hostile toward foreigners," and might even be accused of being "too polite."

De Brunhoff kept the family of five his mother created--Babar, Celeste and their three children, Pom, Flora and Alexander--until three years ago, when he created Isabelle, a fourth child partial to roller skates and a Walkman.

"For more than 30 years, I didn't dare make any changes," he said. "Then my own life changed. I remarried and started a new life in the United States, and that allowed me to envisage a change in Babar's life."

He has lived in Middletown, Conn., since 1987.

Frederique de Buron, who oversees the Babar series at Hachette, the publisher, says there have been no letters questioning Celeste's giving birth at age 60.

"The whole story is pure fantasy, and anything can happen in the realm of the imaginary," she said.

De Brunhoff said he still does not know why his mother chose an elephant but presumes it was because the family had gone to the zoo or the circus.

Store owners say Babar's longevity explains his commercial success.

"If grandmothers are ready to pay 800 francs ($200) for a stuffed Babar chair, it's because they've read Babar themselves, whereas they didn't grow up with Mickey Mouse," said Corinne de Saint Gilhem, owner of the elegant gift shop Goutee en Ville.

Other popular items are Babar pins, puppets, greeting cards, party favors, music boxes and sleeping-bag copies of his green suit.

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