Laurent de Brunhoff Reveals Shocking Beginning of Beloved Babar Series

The scoop on what's behind the shocking killing of the little elephant's mother in the first Babar book.
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Laurent de Brunhoff and an actor dressed as Babar attend a book signing for Babar Comes to New York in 2013. De Brunhoff’s mother, Cecile, first dreamed up a story about an elephant; his father, Jean, wrote and illustrated stories about him. Laurent has kept Babar alive, with more than 45 books in the series so far.


When French author and illustrator Jean de Brunhoff died of tuberculosis at the age of 37, it looked as though one of the best loved characters in children's literature—Babar the elephant—would die with him.

But following the end of World War II de Brunhoff's son, Laurent de Brunhoff, then aged 21, took up his father's mantle. Since then, he has written more than 45 Babar books, as well as creating children's books with characters of his own invention, like Bonhomme and Serafina.

Today, Laurent de Brunhoff is a wry 89-year-old, more comfortable with pictures than words, who still does yoga every morning before getting down to work. His new book, Babar on Paradise Island, created with his wife and collaborator, Phyllis Rose, was published this year.

De Brunhoff and Rose, an author and English literature professor emerita at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, live and work together in an art-filled apartment on New York's Upper West Side. De Brunhoff's workspace, at the back of the apartment, is piled with Babar-abilia: Babar posters, Babar mugs, framed sketches of Babar, a stuffed Yogi Babar, and a Ganesh, the Indian elephant god. On a white, square drafting table sits a large pot of paintbrushes. Tiny ceramic mixing bowls contain dried watercolor pigment.

Over wine and pretzels, they recalled how Russian publisher Ivan Nabokov brought them together in Paris, how husband and wife collaborate, and why, though his creator now lives in America, Babar will never eat hot dogs.

I'm sure you've told the story a million times, but the story of Babar begins with a five-year-old in bed listening to his mother tell him a bedtime story. Transport us back in time.

De Brunhoff: We were at my grandfather's house on the east side of Paris. We used to go there for the summer and to meet our cousins. My brother is one year younger than me. We were like twins. And my mother started to tell us a story to distract us. We loved it, and the next day we ran to our father's study, which was in the corner of the garden, to tell him about it. He was very amused and started to draw. And that was how the story of Babar was born. My mother called him Bebe elephant [French for baby]. It was my father who changed the name to Babar. But the first pages of the first book, with the elephant killed by a hunter and the escape to the city, was her story.

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Cecile and Jean de Brunhoff share a moment in 1930 with their sons Laurent (the taller of the two) and Mathieu.


There's been some controversy about that scene. Some people have said it's too brutal.

De Brunhoff: I feel a little bit embarrassed, actually, because of the feeling many people have about that. I hate the idea of killing elephants, of course. But as a kid, it didn't bother me. What was interesting was the little elephant escaping to the city and meeting the old lady, who became his friend.

Your father, Jean de Brunhoff, was quite a serious artist, as well as a book illustrator, wasn't he?

De Brunhoff: What painting he was doing was just figurative, landscapes and things like that. But there's no real connection between what he was doing as a painter and the Babar books. It was new for him to do little drawings with watercolor and pen.

After he died, your mother famously said there will never be another Babar book, didn't she?

De Brunhoff: Yes. He died very young, at only 37 years old. The publisher was excited about the idea of having somebody else go on with the series. But my mother was absolutely against it. I don't know if she had it in mind that I might go on. But when I was 20, I had started doing abstract painting in Montparnasse, in Paris. At the same time, I was amusing myself with the elephants. I did my first book, Babar's Cousin, That Rascal Arthur. Everybody was happy. So I went on and on—and on. [Laughs]

Was it easy for you to take on your father's mantle rather than pursuing your own artistic career?

De Brunhoff: It was never a problem for me to go on in the same style as my father. I just wanted the elephant to go on living and have his own life. Though it had to be the same characters and the same landscape.

Then, of course, you started to invent your own characters. Tell us a bit about that moment and some of the characters you invented.

De Brunhoff: The first book was actually published in black and white in a British magazine. Babar had three children: two boys and one girl. So when I started doing the book myself, I had the idea to give a fourth child to Babar and Celeste, so there would be two boys and two girls. Since then, I have created many other characters. In the new book there is what I call a "dragoon."

General Charles de Gaulle famously said that he liked the books so much because Babar gives "a certain idea of France." What do you think is the essential French quality of the books he's referring to?

De Brunhoff: [Laughs] I don't know.

Rose: It's hard for him to say because he's French. Really it's a question we should answer because we have an idea of what French-ness is. I think it's this lightness and gaiety and civilization—the fact that Babar does his exercises every morning before having his croissant. He makes life look so good.

De Brunhoff: [Laughs] There's the answer.

Rose: In 2011, Laurent had a show at the Musee d'Orsay. Monsieur Mitterrand—not the former president, but the cultural minister—gave Laurent a medal of arts and letters. In his speech, he said that Babar was the most famous Frenchman in the world.

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"My mother started to tell us a story to distract us," de Brunhoff says. "We loved it, and the next day we ran to our father's study to tell him about it. He was very amused and started to draw. And that was how the story of Babar was born."


Laurent, you famously said once: "Babar, c'est moi." In what way is this little elephant you?

De Brunhoff: Because he's been my whole life, for years and years, drawing the elephant. That's why I say "Babar, c'est moi."

Does it still give you great pleasure to create Babar?

De Brunhoff: Oh, absolutely. I still enjoy drawing elephants, playing with some ideas for another book.

How do you get the idea for a book?

De Brunhoff: These days it is mostly by talking with Phyllis and playing with ideas. Then I'm amusing myself with pencil sketches on my piece of paper.

How detailed is your planning? Do you plan like a filmmaker, with a storyboard for all the pages before you start?

De Brunhoff: The story might be not very definitive. Just some ideas. I do my drawing on a little piece of paper, then put them in order, one after the other. Sometimes I throw one away or take the book apart and construct it again.

Rose: I've been writing the stories recently.

De Brunhoff: Yes, she's the writer.

So how does that work?

Rose: It works differently depending on the book and the inspiration. Sometimes I'll see that Laurent is interesting in drawing a particular thing, so I'll encourage him to draw more of that thing. Then I'll make up a story afterwards to tie these drawings together.

Sometimes it goes the other way. I'll make up a story from the beginning, like the new book, Paradise Island. I gave it to him fully written. Then we worked out what the illustrations should be. My goal as a writer is always to keep him painting. So I'll do whatever I have to do—either make up a story before, or make up a story after. But it's his illustrations that are primary.

Do you ever argue about the stories?

De Brunhoff: [Laughs] I wouldn't say argue.

Rose: We definitely have different impulses. [Laughs] Laurent always wants to put in a strange little creature. So in Paradise Island there's his dragoon, which you might call a dragon. That wasn't in my story. That's the real Laurent element.

To my amazement, I discovered that there's a whole Marxist critique of Babar in France, led partly by Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean writer, who has accused you and your father of perpetuating myths about French colonialism. What do you say to this?

De Brunhoff: I think it's right. Absolutely. In some way, it's a little embarrassing to see Babar fighting with black people in Africa. My second book, Babar's Picnic, was also inspired by my father's drawing. Some years later, I felt embarrassed about this book, and I asked the publisher to withdraw it.

These criticisms don't upset you?

De Brunhoff: Oh ... well ... I ... [Falls silent]

Rose: It upsets him terribly! He feels miserable as soon as you say the word Marxist. It's actually a huge issue. But he's not a person who likes confrontation or conflict in any way. So to be attacked on political grounds, and on grounds that he has sympathy with, is very upsetting.

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Another Babar illustration takes shape, in 1948. When de Brunhoff started painting the Babar books, he says, "I had the idea to give a fourth child to Babar and Celeste, so there would be two boys and two girls. Since then, I have created many other characters."


What do you think the enduring appeal of the Babar books is?

De Brunhoff: It's the story of a family—a family with kids, and the things that can happen to them, good or bad. And I think everybody likes elephants.

After your parents died, did you discover in their papers any new information about what inspired your father?

Rose: We discovered a maquette [rough draft] for the story of Babar, on which Jean de Brunhoff had put himself and Cecile, his wife, as co-authors.

De Brunhoff: My mother was absolutely against it, because she thought that even if she helped the idea, the whole creation was my father's.

Rose: She refused to have her name on it. I was really surprised when we discovered that.

I didn't know there were two branches of the family—African and French. Can you tell us about that?

De Brunhoff: My great grandmother, Ida de Brunhoff, married a man named Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who owned Le Matin, the newspaper, and helped fund the Panama Canal. In the 1920s, one of the family relations, Giselle Bunau-Varilla, traveled to Africa. She ended up in Kenya, where she settled.

According to the story, while she was on safari in the Belgian Congo, she shot an elephant. Afterwards, she discovered that she was pregnant and vowed she would never shoot another elephant. It also focused that branch of the family on conservation work. Her daughter, Oria Douglas-Hamilton, helps run Save the Elephants.

Do you think this story of her shooting an elephant inspired your mother?

De Brunhoff: I think it did.

Rose: [Startled] You do?

De Brunhoff: Yes, I think so.

Rose: You've never said that before!

De Brunhoff: [Smiles sheepishly] He knew there were these cousins who were going off into the Congo, shooting elephants. In 1926, my father also visited the Paris Colonial Exhibition. This was very important for the history of Babar. They imported a whole tribe from Africa and built a village. That's probably where my father got the idea for the huts in Celesteville. It made a huge impact on the imagination of Parisians.

Tell us about your latest book, Babar on Paradise Island. Where did the idea come from?

De Brunhoff: It was inspired by this island next to Key West, which belongs to a friend of ours. Phyllis created the story about the storm that pushes the boat onto the reef. It was an adventure for me to go there too.

You've done some offbeat Babar books in your time. Would your father have approved of Babar's yoga book?

De Brunhoff: I don't know about that. [Laughs] I started to do yoga with a friend, and I just was fascinated. Now I do it by myself every morning after my cup of coffee, for 20 minutes. It's a sort of meditation and a nice way to start the day, physically. [Smiles] I cannot stand on my head anymore. But I can still stand on one leg.

Do you still feel a strong connection with your French cultural roots?

De Brunhoff: There's of course a part of me that's still French. But I feel like an American these days. [Laughs]

So one day Babar will eat hot dogs and drink Pepsi?

De Brunhoff: [Horrified] Oh, no! Never! [Laughs] Only red wine.

How did you two meet?

De Brunhoff: She was living in France working on a book about Josephine Baker. We met at a party. The publisher Nabokov was there, and he was making her laugh a lot. After dinner we sat down on the sofa together. She said, I love your work. I said, I don't know your work, but I love your eyes. And that was the start of it. I moved here in 1985.

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In their house in Key West, Florida, de Brunhoff and his wife, author Phyllis Rose, take a break from work in 2008. They collaborate, with Rose doing the writing. "My goal is always to keep him painting," she says.


Do you work here in the apartment?

De Brunhoff: Yes. I can show you, except that unfortunately it's quite empty now because we're packing to go to Key West. [He takes out a freshly painted page showing Babar standing in the rain on the cobblestoned streets of Paris, with a bright blue umbrella over his head.] This is for the next book, Babar's Guide to Paris. It's a color study. I usually do three or four, sometimes even eight, before I do the final colors. When I've finished the color, I draw the black lines around the figures. Very precise. With my pen. Then Phyllis puts the dialogue in. These days it's done by computer.

Rose: As research for this book, I went and took photographs of Paris. [She pulls out a large color print of a figure standing in the rain with a blue umbrella.] Laurent then creates the maquettes.

Is it true you have your father's originals here?

De Brunhoff: Yes. Not all of them. Some of them are in the gallery. [He opens a sliding drawer, revealing a series of studies by Jean de Brunhoff.] It's fun to look at these maquettes. He did so many studies. Such a huge amount of work!

Has Babar got a Christmas message for National Geographic readers?

De Brunhoff: [With an impish smile] Babar always says, "Pas de panique." "No panic." [Raises arms in the air] I say, No war! No fighting each other! No enemies!

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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