The Story of Babar and KinMEGHAN COX GURDON
The characters in classic children's books have such an emotional permanence that it's easy to forget that once upon a time, before you met them in the nursery, and longer still before you introduced them to your own children, they consisted only of an idea in someone's mind and perhaps a few doodles on a spare bit of paper.
Seventy-eight years ago, a French mother made up a story about an elephant to entertain her young sons. The boys so loved her tale that they begged their father, an accomplished painter, to illustrate it. As that father belonged to a family of publishers, it wasn't long before his modest little mock-up became a proper book. So it was that, in 1931, the world made the acquaintance of Babar.
Jean de Brunhoff could not have known that by turning his wife Cecile's bedtime story into Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant (The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant), he was founding a kind of dynasty.
Yet from that first adventure -- in which a happy young elephant sees his mother shot before him, and flees the jungle for a city where he befriends a wealthy old lady and purchases a green suit -- were to spring 43 more books about Babar and his family.
Jean de Brunhoff wrote only seven of them (Cecile modestly withdrew her name from rough drafts of the first tale, and seems not to have collaborated on its successors). His early death from tuberculosis in 1937 would have seemed to put an end to Babar's adventures. But a few years later, the couple's son Laurent (one of the original eager auditors) picked up brush and pen and revived the series. Laurent de Brunhoff continues to produce children's books about the famous elephant. His most recent, Babar's USA, was published in August.
Now at the Morgan Library & Museum, admirers of the books have an opportunity to see something remarkable: the first illustrations for each of the initial Babar books by Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff, respectively, set beside the printer's dummy pages for both works.
For the devotee, the nostalgic impact of Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors, is not to be exaggerated.
Here in one gallery are the actual first scratchings, pages torn out of spiral notebooks with ink splotches on them, where Jean de Brunhoff tested his pen. Here in another room are the dashes of bright watercolor showing where Laurent de Brunhoff thought the characters in 1946's Babar et ce coquin d'Arthur (Babar's Cousin: That Rascal Arthur) probably ought to go.
Apart from engendering warm feelings, the exhibition also reinforces the fragility, and sometimes whimsy, of artistic invention. Comparing rough drafts with final copy shows that Babar didn't begin the way he ended. For instance, he was at first dubbed simply "baby elephant." (The origins of the name Babar are unknown. Was it was an elision of "bebe" and "roi"? Or did it derive from the Mughal emperor Babur?) Babar's suit was gray before it was green. And his lovely bride, Celeste, didn't even exist in early versions; the character destined to become Babar's queen evolved from sketches of a young male cousin.
In this way, "Drawing Babar" is a reminder that cultural artifacts are never foregone conclusions; a slip of the pen here or a tonal misjudgment there could have doomed the enterprise to obscurity.
Babar, of course, is anything but obscure, and the panels laid out over two galleries by curator Christine Nelson invite us to ask why this is. Why do virtually all American and European children know and love Babar?
Among scholars there exist explanations horribly freighted with the angst of postcolonial studies. Yet among children, and the ex-children who read Babar books aloud at bedtime, there are lighter, friendlier reasons that are surely also persuasive.
For one thing, in Babar's world there's always something exciting going on. The first nine pages of the Laurent de Brunhoff book featured at the Morgan, for instance, depict no fewer than seven nifty ways of getting around: By camel, by parachute, by trolley, by cable car, by train, by boat, and by airplane (which last is quickly followed by more scenes of parachuting).
Later in the same story, that rascal Arthur travels on camelback across a crocodile-infested river by means of . . . semisubmerged hippopotamuses! It is a classic de Brunhoff scene: of adventure for the story's characters and of visual amusement for young readers. Who can be blasé about a hippo bridge?
In the Babar books there's an immense amount of exploration and danger -- along with cannibals and whales and hot-air balloons -- but also a powerful sense of safety to be found in the ambit of the family, which itself is bounded by the wisdom and goodness of Babar and Celeste and their love for each other. This too is a key to understanding the grip of the series on childhood affections.
In an effort to make the Babar experience memorable to youthful visitors as well as their parents, the café at the Morgan is serving Babar-themed dainties such as pressed sandwiches and éclairs. Carpets copied from the books create a pleasant sense of domestic intimacy in the galleries. So do the stacks of Babar books available for young visitors to leaf through and, ideally, not remove ("I refuse to chain books," says Ms. Nelson bravely).
And in a triumph of the refined good taste of Babar himself, the organizers have eschewed the sort of whiz-bang technology that can make museum visits with children so dispiriting. The artwork here has no competition from noisy monitors, and the only screens are those on two discreet pillars that permit visitors to examine more closely the "maquette," or preliminary booklet, that Jean made for the first Babar.
The maquette's title page shows just how unsuspecting the author clearly was of the colossal success Babar would enjoy. Where a finished book would bear the name of the publishing house, Jean de Brunhoff had penciled in simply "chez nous."
Meghan Cox Gurdon. "The Story of Babar and Kin." The Wall Street Journal (October 11, 2008).
Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
photos: The Morgan Library & Museum
Meghan Cox Gurdon is a writer and journalist who reviews children's books for the The Wall Street Journal . She lives in Toronto with her husband and three small children.
Copyright © 2008 Wall Street Journal
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