Laurent de Brunhoff, who took over writing and illustrating the Babar the Elephant series of books after his father’s early death, was born on August 30, 1925.
His father, Jean de Brunhoff, died in 1937, at the age of 37, when Laurent was 12 years old. Jean had produced six Babar books in his lifetime. Laurent, a gifted artist himself, took over the series in 1946, when he was 21, and went on to publish nearly 50 Babar books of his own.
The origin of the Babar books came from the bedtime stories about an orphaned elephant who visits a big colonial city and returns with knowledge of the ways of the humans that Laurent’s mother, Cécile de Brunhoff, made up and told to him and his younger brother, Mathieu.
The boys asked their father, an artist, to make them some illustrations to go with the stories, which he did, eventually turning them into a children’s book. He originally wanted to credit Cécile as co-author but she modestly refused.
Unlike her husband Cécile had a long life, dying in 2003 at the age of 99. She continued throughout her life to give her son story ideas for her beloved green suit-wearing elephant.
Laurent seems to have inherited his father’s artistic talent, but he also inherited his mother’s longevity. He turns 93 today and lives in New York with his second wife, the historian Phyllis Rose.
Like millions of others I grew up loving the Babar books. The stories were touching and full of just the right amount of menace. The illustrations appeared to be simple but were full of closely observed details. Their style is what one critic called “faux naif.”
The books though, have come in for a lot of criticism for their perceived racism and celebration of French colonialism. Laurent de Brunhoff was himself aware of the flaws in his father’s books and his own early work. He later withdrew his second Babar book and revised others to take out the racist depictions of African “natives.”
Babar and his family adopt human, bourgeois habits, such as clothing, cars and walking upright, in contrast to the other naked four legged elephants. A “rebellion” by the recalcitrant rhinos is put down with force.
De Brunhoff later said that his books were meant to have a slightly satirical undertone. Young children are caught at the point of being attracted not only to natural wildness but also to comfort and order. His books, he said, were meant to play against this tension.