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Laurent de Brunhoff, the creator of the popular Babar books for children, has passed away at the age of 98.

Laurent de Brunhoff, the creator of the popular Babar books for children, has passed away at the age of 98.

Laurent de Brunhoff, the creator of Babar and son of the original author, has passed away at the age of 98. He brought his father’s beloved series about an elephant-king to even greater heights as a worldwide multimedia phenomenon.

According to his wife Phyllis Rose, De Brunhoff, originally from Paris, relocated to the United States in the 1980s and passed away on Friday at his residence in Key West, Florida, after receiving hospice care for two weeks.

At just 12 years old, Laurent’s father, Jean de Brunhoff, passed away from tuberculosis. As an adult, Laurent used his talents as a painter and storyteller to create many books featuring the elephant who rules over Celesteville, including Babar at the Circus and Babar’s Yoga for Elephants. While he used less words than his father, he stayed true to Jean’s soft and subtle illustration style.

In 1981, author Ann S Haskell praised the collaborative work of a father and son who created a seamless and intricate fictional universe, making it difficult to distinguish between their individual contributions.

The series has sold millions of copies worldwide and was adapted for a television program and such animated features as Babar: The Movie and “Babar: King of the Elephants. Fans ranged from Charles de Gaulle to Maurice Sendak, who once wrote: “If he had come my way, how I would have welcomed that little elephant and smothered him with affection.”

An illustration from a children's book Babar the elephant.View image in fullscreen

Brunhoff believed that Babar was a representation of himself, stating “Babar, c’est moi” which translates to “that’s me”. In an interview with National Geographic in 2014, he explained, “I have spent countless years drawing the elephant and he has been a big part of my life.”

The books did not have widespread appeal. Many parents were uncomfortable with a scene in the first book, The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, where Babar’s mother is killed by hunters. The series received criticism for being racist and colonialist, with critics pointing to Babar’s education in Paris and its impact on his assumed African-based monarchy. In 1983, author Ariel Dorfman from Chile described the books as promoting “an indirect history that defends and explains the reasons behind an international system where some countries have plentiful resources while others have very little”.

Dorfman states that Babar’s past is simply the realization of the colonial aspirations of powerful nations.

In 2008, Adam Gopnik, a correspondent for the New Yorker living in Paris, argued in support of Babar, stating that it is not an inadvertent portrayal of French colonial thought, but rather a deliberate satire of it and its ties to the French cultural mindset.

The creator of Babar, De Brunhoff, admitted to feeling embarrassed by the portrayal of Babar engaging in battles with African people. He particularly regretted the 1949 book Babar’s Picnic, which contained offensive depictions of Black and Native American characters, and requested for it to be removed from publication.

Jean de Brunhoff and Cecile de Brunhoff had three sons, with De Brunhoff being the oldest. Cecile, who was a painter, came up with the idea for Babar, the elephant king, while telling a story to her children.

In 2014, de Brunhoff explained to National Geographic how his mother began telling them a story to keep them from being distracted. They were captivated by it, and the following day they eagerly ran to their father’s study in the garden to share it with him. He found it entertaining and began to draw, thus the story of Babar was created. Originally, his mother referred to the elephant as “Bebe,” but it was his father who ultimately changed the name to Babar. The initial pages of the first book, which featured the elephant’s death by a hunter and his journey to the city, were inspired by his mother’s tale.

In 1931, the first installment of Babar was published by the family-owned Le Jardin Des Modes. The initial book was met with great success and author Jean de Brunhoff went on to write four more installments before passing away at the young age of 37. Following his death, his uncle Michael published two more books, but the series remained untouched until after World War II. It was then that Laurent, who had become a painter, revived the series.

“Increasingly, I developed a strong belief in the existence of a Babar tradition and felt that it should be preserved,” he stated in a 1952 article for the New York Times.

De Brunhoff was married twice, most recently to the critic and biographer Phyllis Rose, who wrote the text to many of the recent Babar publications, including the 2017 release billed as the finale, Babar’s Guide to Paris.

De Brunhoff had a son and a daughter, named Anne and Antoine, respectively. However, the author did not intentionally write for a young audience.

In 2017, he expressed to the Wall Street Journal that he does not typically consider children when creating his books. He explained that Babar, a character he invented and wrote stories about, was his personal friend and that his writing is primarily for his own enjoyment rather than with the intention of appealing to children.

Source: theguardian.com