It's been 50 years since Babar the Elephant, beloved of several generations of young readers, made his appearance. To commemorate the event, Random House has reissued six of the Babar books together in one volume. The new book also includes an introduction by Maurice Sendak and a biographical "picture story" by Laurent de Brunhoff about his father, Jean, who began the Babar series and completed seven of the tales before his death in 1937.
Three of the father's works are collected here, "The Story of Babar," "The Travels of Babar," and Babar the King," along with three of the 16 Laurent went to add, "Babar's Birthday Surprise," went on to add, "Babar's Birthday Surprised ," "Babar and the Wully-Wully," and "Babar's Mystery."
Jean de Brunhoff's wife, Cecile, invented Babar for a story she told their young children. In 1930 de Brunhoff decided to write a book about the elephant. The written chronicle begins just as the young elephant is wrenched out of a blissful childhood and thrust into the imposing, unfamiliar world of civilization, which requires him to adapt and become self-sufficient.
The first story in this new volume, "The Story of Babar," recounts the elephant's transformation from frightened, untutored youth to self-assured maturity. Comprising only 40 pages or so, it is a masterpiece of vi seems as compelling today as 50 years ago.
After the first book, Babar seemed to take on a life of his own, never ceasing to inspire de Brunhoff. Yet the reasons why the well-established French painter seized on the picture book as a means of expression remain unclear. In his Inroduction, Sendak suggests the stories may have provided a means for de Brunhoff, who was seriously ill and not expected to recover, to leave a message for his children, "voicing his natural concerns for their welfare, for their lives" and passing along his experience and wisdom.
Whatever his reason, de Brunhoff's stories have struck responsive chords across several generations, possibly because his "wisdom" confronts, rather than dodges, the possibility of upheaval in life and the threat of death. Yet de Brunhoff is never heavy-handed or morose. The misfortunes in his books and the darker implications are counterbalanced by the wonderful lightness of the illustrations -- those clear, unthreatening forms and colors, and the sense of movement radiating from every page.
"In Babar the King," the elephant suffers a dark night of the soul. The day in Celesteville has been calamitous: Babar's benefactress was bitten by a poisonous snake, fire. Babar is tormented by specters of doom. But with morning, and the recovery of his friends, things seem brighter. De Brunhoff takes the moment to picture Babar together with his extended family, while one of them observes: "Do you see how is this life one must never be discouraged? . . . Let's work hard and cheerfully and we'll continue to be happy." Remarkably, de Brunhoff carries off this scene without making it trite or pedantic.
After his father's passing, Laurent de Brunhoff took over the series and introduced new characters, such as Rataxes, the phlegmatic, pugnacious rhinoceros, who appears in "Babar and Wully-Wully." Though his own stories sometimes lack the clarity and utter simplicity of his father's, Laurent's work always resonates with the same sensbility. In the field of children's literature there is probably not to be found a more profound partnership or a truer continuity of vision than theirs.
Today's readers, with their supersensitivity to stereotypes and all forms of chauvinism may regard the early Babar books as dated and naive. But if we linger over our cultural differences, we miss the sweep and completeness of these miniallegories.
Most of us will find something of our own lives in Babar's quest for maturity. The stories engage us on the level of fantasy, joyously showing that we can go home again, that we needn't lose our connections with the past. Also that renewal is possible, that progress can be positive and beneficial. In short, Babar reveals that we can turn chaos into order with a liberal draft of compassion, patience, and purposefulness.
Many happy returns, Babar.