Children’s Babar Series Author Dies at 98

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Laurent de Brunhoff, the renowned author and illustrator who carried on the legacy of the beloved Babar the Elephant book series, died at the age of 98 in Key West, Florida. Born in Paris, France, de Brunhoff later relocated to the United States, where he passed away on Friday, March 22, 2024, following a two-week stay in hospice care, as confirmed by his widow, Phyllis Rose.

De Brunhoff was thrust into the legacy of the Babar series at a young age. His father, Jean de Brunhoff, the original creator of Babar, passed away from tuberculosis when Laurent was only 12. In the early 1930s, Jean introduced readers to the adventures of Babar, an elephant who rises to rule the imaginary kingdom of Celesteville.

Laurent de Brunhoff kept the Babar narrative alive and played a pivotal role in its transformation into a worldwide multimedia franchise, encompassing books, television programs, and films.

De Brunhoff’s storytelling was marked by a minimalist approach to text and a commitment to maintaining his father’s gentle and nuanced art style. This father-son collaboration resulted in a world loved by millions around the globe, earning acclaim from notable figures like French general Charles de Gaulle and American author Maurice Sendak.

The inception of the Babar series can be traced back to a tale concocted by de Brunhoff’s mother, Cecile de Brunhoff, to amuse her young children. This family tale evolved into the first Babar book, “The Story of Babar,” published in 1931. Despite the early demise of Jean de Brunhoff, the character of Babar survived through Laurent’s dedication. His creations, including “Babar at the Circus” and “Babar’s Yoga for Elephants,” have carried on Babar’s adventures for many generations.

However, the legacy of Babar has not been without disputes. Some critics believe the series exhibits colonial and racist ideologies, particularly in its portrayal of Babar’s education in Paris and its subsequent influence on his kingdom. These criticisms, notably voiced by Chilean author Ariel Dorfman in 1983, have ignited considerable discourse. But other observers, such as author Adam Gopnik, have defended the series, asserting it provides a satirical critique of colonial imagination.

De Brunhoff’s own contemplations on his work reveal a complex relationship with his creations. He expressed remorse over certain depictions in the series, particularly in “Babar’s Picnic,” and took steps to rectify these concerns.

Aside from Babar, de Brunhoff’s life boasted artistic and personal achievements. He was married twice, with his second wife, Phyllis Rose, playing a significant role in the later Babar publications. Despite his vast audience, de Brunhoff often claimed that he did not specifically write for children but for himself, crafting narratives about his friend Babar.

With the death of Laurent de Brunhoff, a significant chapter in the historical narrative of Babar comes to a close. Over the decades, through books, television adaptations, and films, Babar’s tales of adventure, leadership, and education have endeared themselves to global audiences. De Brunhoff’s artistic vision and talent have ensured Babar’s enduring presence in children’s literature and beyond.

De Brunhoff’s work, spanning over seventy years, continues to inspire and encapsulate the spirit of exploration and the importance of cultural understanding.

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