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Babar still going strong as he nears 75

July 04, 2006|From Reuters

PARIS — Babar the Elephant, a timeless figure in children's literature, turns 75 this year, his trademark crown and green suit unmarked by changing fashions or criticism that his jungle realm is a relic of colonialism.

Babar was created one evening in 1931 when Cecile de Brunhoff, a piano teacher, told her two small sons the story of an elephant whose mother was killed by hunters and who fled to a town where he learned to dress as a human.

"My brother and I loved the story, and we rushed into my father's studio -- he was a painter -- to tell him about it," Laurent de Brunhoff, who was 6 when his mother made the tale up, recalled in an interview.

"He drew some images in a big sketchbook, and he developed the idea. He gave Babar his name, because my mother hadn't given him one," he said.

The boys' father, Jean de Brunhoff, showed the sketches to a relative who worked in magazines. The story was published as a book, becoming an instant success and leading to a series of others, telling how Babar returns home to become king and of his subsequent adventures.

"It was a surprise in publishing terms," said Laurent de Brunhoff. "At the start of the 1930s there weren't that many books for children, and the presentation of the book was totally new, with its big double pages full of detail."

Babar has since become a familiar figure in children's bedrooms from France to Japan, and his enduring appeal was recently marked by the French post office, which issued a commemorative stamp.

Jean de Brunhoff died in 1937, but Laurent de Brunhoff took up the character himself in 1946 and has since taken Babar through a new series of adventures, including a trip into space. Cecile de Brunhoff died in 2003.

Babar has been attacked as a symbol of imperialist oppression, his Europeanized dress and the colonial-style buildings of his capital Celesteville seen as a product of France's own colonial past.

"The idea of a 'savage' moving towards civilization can be attacked as colonialist," Laurent de Brunhoff said. "But I don't think for one second that that's what's evoked in a child's mind."

He said the atmosphere of family closeness and the colorful stories were behind the series' success.

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