Inspiring Young Readers
Jean de Brunhoff.
The name of Jean de Brunhof is synonymous with one fantastic creation – Babar the Elephant. De Brunhof was born at the very end of the 19th century and was dead by 1937, killed by the then incurable tuberculosis.
In many ways de Brunhof’s life was unremarkable – he came from a comfortable middle class family and although he joined the army to fight in World War One, he didn’t see much action until the conflict was nearly over. On leaving the army he went to art school with the aim of making a living from his artistic talents and he met, fell in love with and married a concert pianist with whom he had two children. And it was the stories that he and his wife would tell the children that became the inspiration for the Babar books.
De Brunhof completed six books in his lifetime and two posthumous ones were supervised by his brother who was then the editor of French Vogue. In my view, these titles and this period of Babar that was the creation of Jean were the very best of the books.
After World War Two the Babar franchise started up again in earnest with Jean’s son Laurant taking on the role of artist. Although he tried hard to faithfully replicate his father’s style and the conventions of drawing the elephant, they were undoubtedly different – and to my eyes inferior despite their huge popularity.
The artistry of Jean’s drawings is undeniable – they are free, naïve and yet oddly sophisticated. Babar’s illogical dimensions, his place in the landscape, his suits of clothes (God damn it, that’s a brilliant touch) are all insane and yet we’re happy to accept them and happy to accept the polite and mild-mannered nature of the characters and the stories. The beautiful colours just add that touch of extra warmth to everything.
But the Babar books have not been without controversy and they have been comprehensively attacked as French post-colonialism and apologies for imperialistic attitudes towards Africa in particular. I’m personally not persuaded by this argument for reasons very similar to those expressed by Adam Gopnik writing in The New Yorker in 2008 who expresses an alternative view better than I could have done:
Yet those who would burn “Babar” miss the true subject of the books. The de Brunhoffs’ saga is not an unconscious expression of the French colonial imagination; it is a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination and its close relation to the French domestic imagination. The gist of the classic early books of the nineteen-thirties—“The Story of Babar” and “Babar the King,” particularly—is explicit and intelligent: the lure of the city, of civilization, of style and order and bourgeois living is real, for elephants as for humans. The costs of those things are real, too, in the perpetual care, the sobriety of effort, they demand. The happy effect that Babar has on us, and our imaginations, comes from this knowledge—from the child’s strong sense that, while it is a very good thing to be an elephant, still, the life of an elephant is dangerous, wild, and painful. It is therefore a safer thing to be an elephant in a house near a park.