From a bedtime story shared between a mother and her sons to a children’s series that has sold over 10.1 million copies in the U.S., Babar and his adventures have captivated children for generations. Learn more about the French pachyderm king with the following facts.
1. THE BOOK SERIES IS WRITTEN BY TWO AUTHORS: A FATHER AND HIS SON.
Jean de Brunhoff was working as a painter in France when his two sons brought to him a story of a resilient elephant who runs away to the city after his mother is shot by a hunter. Jean published The Story of Babar in 1931 and wrote seven books about the elephant. His son, Laurent de Brunhoff, eventually took over the family character after his father’s death—even when his mother said there would never be another Babar book—and published an additional 35 Babar books.
2. THE CHARACTER WAS CREATED BY THE MATRIARCH OF THE DE BRUNHOFF FAMILY.
To distract his younger brother, Mathieu, from a stomach ache, de Brunhoff’s mother, Cecile, made up the story that would eventually become Babar. She later would refuse to add her name as an author on the stories. De Brunhoff says he has no memory of hearing the first story, but remembers watching his father paint the elephant (Jean is credited with adding Babar’s bowler hat and bright green suit). It was de Brunhoff’s uncles who convinced his father that Babar’s story could appeal to a wider audience.
3. THE DEATH OF BABAR’S MOTHER WAS INSPIRED BY A FAMILY MEMBER’S SAFARI.
De Brunhoff had family in both Africa and France, including a distant relation, Giselle Bunau-Varilla, who lived in Kenya. While on safari, Bunau-Varilla shot an elephant, but after Bunau-Varilla found out soon after that she was pregnant, she vowed never to hunt an elephant again. The branch of the family instead focused on conservation work and Bunau-Varilla’s daughter eventually worked for Save the Elephants.
4. DE BRUNHOFF TOOK OVER THE JOB OF COLORING THE PROOFS FOR THE BABAR STORIES WHEN HE WAS 13.
When Jean died of tuberculosis in 1937, he left two more stories about Babar that were in need of illustrations. Laurent, who was only 13, was assigned to finish the artwork, but it wasn’t until he was 21 that he wrote his first book about the character.
5. LAURENT NOW WRITES THE STORIES WITH THE HELP OF HIS WIFE, PHYLLIS ROSE.
Babar has taken some more offbeat adventures in recent years, including a story in which the elephant king and his family are swept into outer space on a rocket, one in which Babar is shipwrecked on a deserted island, and a book that reveals that elephants, in fact, have been practicing yoga for years.
6. LAURENT DE BRUNHOFF THOUGHT HE WOULD BE A PAINTER.
Laurent attended Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, the same art school as his father, with hopes of working in abstract art. However, he continued to sketch elephants in the manner of his father and eventually revived the character. "I wanted to make Babar, who was my friend, live again after the death of my father,” Laurent said in an interview with USA Today. While the father’s and son’s versions of the elephant are almost exactly the same, art critics have noted that Laurent's illustrations have more “painterly qualities.”
7. BABAR HAS BEEN CALLED THE MOST FAMOUS FRENCHMAN IN THE WORLD.
For some, more than an ambassador from an elephant kingdom, Babar shows the world what it means to be French—which includes exercising every morning before your croissant. General Charles de Gaulle famously loved the elephant because he gave the world “a certain idea of France,” and former cultural minister Frédéric Mitterrand bestowed a medal of arts and letters upon Laurent.
8. THE CHARACTER’S NAME WAS BORROWED FOR A MALWARE PROGRAM.
Last year, researchers into cyber espionage released details of a malware program, known as “Babar,” which some thought to be the work of the French. The software was capable of listening into conversations on Skype and MSN and Yahoo! messengers, logging keystrokes and watching which websites users visited.
9. BABAR HAS FACED SOME CONTROVERSY.
In East Sussex, England, the Babar books were removed from library shelves because of their portrayal of black Africans, which some critics deemed racist. Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman leads a movement of thought against the books because, according to The New York Times, he sees Babar's story as "a lesson in colonialism with racist overtones."
For his part, Laurent agrees with Dorfman's assessment and has even asked the publisher to withdraw more problematic stories.
10. EVEN AT 85 YEARS OLD, THE STORIES OF BABAR LIVE ON.
For six seasons, a cartoon-version of the Babar stories was broadcast in 30 languages in more than 150 countries, which makes the series one of the most widely distributed animated shows in history. Former First Lady Laura Bush listed the book series as one of her favorites to read with young children, and the characters have made an appearance at the White House Easter Egg Roll for many years.