Kids' Book Club: The Story Of Babar By Jean De Brunhoff

24/07/2012 18:58 | Updated 22 May 2015

Jean de Brunhoff - does this name ring any bells? No?

Well, you're sure to have come across what he's famous for - writing and illustrating the touching stories about Babar, the elephant.

The very first Babar story, Histoire de Babar, published in France in 1931, is really quite an emotional read. "In the great forest a little elephant was born. His name was Babar. His mother loved him dearly and used to rock him to sleep with her trunk, singing to him softly the while," it begins.

Just a few pages later, the idyll is shattered when Babar's mother is shot by a cruel hunter and Babar weeps over her body, then wanders for days on his own until he finds himself in a town.

This is where the tale becomes surreal. Taken under the wing of a rich old lady, Babar is soon the sophisticated man about town, dapperly dressed in a bowler hat, shoes and spats (those elegant white footwear accessories worn under shoes at the turn of the Twentieth Century).

He learns mathematics, sleeps in a bed, drives a car, eats at a table and bathes in...well, a bath.

No-one, least of all Babar himself, seems to think any of this is odd, considering he is a huge wild animal - and this is exactly what makes the story so gently funny for children.

But Babar does miss his fellow elephants and they miss him - and before long, he is back in the jungle with them, and crowned king by wise, wrinkly old Cornelius. He marries (rather oddly) his cousin Celeste. Surely she must have been named after Cécile, de Brunhoff's wife, who dreamed up Babar as a bedtime story for their sons.

The picture-book, with its dignified, loveable hero, was an immediate success - and across the Channel in Britain, Babar has become one of our favourite French children's literary classics, along with Madeline, Asterix and The Little Prince.

By the way, if, like me, you've never been quite sure how Babar is meant to be pronounced, it's BAH-ba with the first 'a' as in 'aunt'; not as in 'apple' or 'bay'. I have this on good authority from his publishers.

Jean de Brunhoff created six more Babar books telling the adventures of Babar and his family and friends. After Jean died of tuberculosis in 1937, at just 37, his son Laurent carried on the tradition, writing and illustrating dozens more Babar books.

Today Laurent, approaching 90, lives with his wife in the US - his latest Babar book, B is for Babar, came out in May 2012.

As with all too many children's classics, today, Babar is a franchised brand - the TV series is a pathetically poor imitation of the books' genius. But thankfully, children today love the books as much as we and our parents and grandparents did, and to date more than eight million Babar books have been sold worldwide - not bad at all for a little baby elephant dreamed up as a bedtime story.

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