Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Story of Babar

I remember reading The Story of Babar, by French author Jean de Brunhoff, as a young child. The cover was bright red and showed an elephant tipping his bowler hat. I suppose you either like elephants in bowler hats or you don't, but I could tell right away that this would be a good book.

Babar is a baby elephant, and his life in the jungle is idyllic. His mother rocks him to sleep in a hammock. He plays with all the other little elephants, building sand castles, tossing balls, and using his trunk for a water pistol. It looks like so much fun.

But then tragedy strikes. Babar is riding on his mother's back, when "an evil hunter" appears and fires his gun. The next picture shows young Babar standing over his dead mother. How could this happen?

I knew a little about death. At my church, a girl just about my age had been hit by a car, and my parents took me to the funeral home, where she was laid out in a small coffin with a beautiful doll. Both the doll and the girl had pink cheeks and dark hair. It was so mysterious and sad...but back to the story.

The hunter tries to catch Babar, but he runs away to a nearby town where he meets a very nice "old lady." She gives him money to buy a suit of clothes and invites him to live with her. She even gives him her sporty red car. When his cousins Arthur and Celeste come for a visit, he takes them to a pastry shop for a treat.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, the King of the Elephants eats a bad mushroom and dies. In the picture, he looks very sickly and green. Eventually, Babar returns to the jungle and becomes the new king.

The plot and the pictures in The Story of Babar are charming and whimsical and delightful. But this children's writer did not tip-toe around the reality of death. Try as you may, you can't ignore the fact that there are two dead elephants in this book.

The death of Babar's mother is very sad--but as often happens in real life, Babar doesn't have time to stop and feel sorry for himself. He has to run for his own life.

Babar has to move past this horrible experience in order to first survive and then thrive. Though there are terrible things in this world (like evil hunters), there are also wonderful gifts, like the friendship of the old lady. In fact, it was tragedy that propelled Babar to his destiny--to go to the town and meet his benefactor and to gain wisdom and experience.

The death of the elephant king is also sad, and yet, once again, life must triumph. There will be a new king, and that king is Babar.

What we learn from Babar is that even when something terrible happens, we need to keep turning the pages. There is more of the story to come.

Jean de Brunhoff
Jean de Brunhoff was a French writer and illustrator. The Story of Babar began as a bedtime story his wife Cecille told their sons. The sons liked the story so much that they asked their father to illustrate it. Jean de Brunhoff created seven Babar books in all, and later, his oldest son, Laurent, followed in his father's footsteps and created more of the stories. 

Today, Babar is king of a media empire. He has starred in movies and an animated television series. He even inspired a musical composition by that whimsical French composer, Francis Poulenc. 

Children's writers nowadays are cautioned NOT to write about animals that talk and act like people. Brunhoff would have a tough time finding a publisher for Babar in the 21st century. We can only hope that writers and artists will blissfully ignore all these pompous, pain-in-the-rump "rules" of writing and continue to produce wonderful works of whimsy and lyrical beauty.

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