Babar the Elephant turns 75
There is an interesting tale behind the creation of the timeless figure of children's literature.india Updated: Jun 28, 2006 16:24 IST
Babar the Elephant, a timeless figure of children's literature, turns 75 this year, his trademark crown and green suit unmarked by changing fashions and 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 is killed by hunters and who flees to a town where he learns 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 six when his mother made the tale up, told Reuters.
"He drew some images in a big sketch book 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 and 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," Laurent de Brunhoff said. "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 marked this month by the French post office, which issued a commemorative stamp.
Jean de Brunhoff died in 1937 but Lurent took up the character himself in 1946 and has since taken Babar through a new series of adventures, including a trip into space.
However Babar has stayed true to his origins in pre-war France, his three-piece suit and spats and the sailor outfits of his children recalling the dress of an earlier epoch, and his musical and cultural interests firmly those of the classical European tradition.
"For foreigners, it's very French. I often hear that in America where I live but for me I don't really see it, myself," de Brunhoff said.
More controversially, Babar has been attacked as a symbol of imperialist oppression, his Europeanised dress and the colonial-style buildings of his capital Celesteville seen as a product of France's own colonialist past.
One critic was so concerned by what he saw as Babar's dangerous influence on children's imaginations that he wrote an essay entitled "Should we burn Babar?"
"It annoys me a bit because I don't think it's the idea behind Babar," de Brunhoff said.
"You can understand it, the elephant who goes to find human civilisation and brings it back home," he said. "But it basically comes from the fact that in the 1930s, there was colonialism. France was a colonial power."
"The idea of a 'savage' moving towards civilisation can be attacked as colonialist," he 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 colourful stories was behind the series' success, a success now reinforced by an industry of Babar posters and accessories of all kinds.
"Children of an age to appreciate Babar, that's to say between two and seven years, haven't changed that much even if they sometimes like playing with computers," he said.