The Babar series is a vexing cultural milestone. There's no denying the appeal of Babar and his brood: who wouldn't love a series of cartoon books about a family of anthropomorphic elephants? But I've always had a hard time with Babar, though, even when I was a kid, and this is particularly true of the early books, especially the first volume, which is both downright weird, and undeniably racist at its core, reflecting French imperialism in its waning days. The first seven Babar books were written by Jean deBrunhoff; after World War Two his son, Laurent DeBrunhoff, took over, and continued the series for over five decades. Laurent has a softer touch, and definitely seems to have made a conscious effort to smooth out some to the cultural rough spots in the franchise... Here's a quick look at the series, from 1931 to the present day...






Jean & Laurent DeBrunhoff & The Babar Bibliography
Books By Author | Books By Title | Main Index



"The Story Of Babar"
Written by Jean De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Jean De Brunhoff
(Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1931/1934)

The first Babar book, The Story Of Babar is perhaps the worst of the lot, in terms of its underlying cultural prejudice and the warped messages it gives little kids. It's the prototype for a whole genre of animals-are-better-in-the-human-world books (Curious George, The Happy Lion, Crictor...) that show wild animals being tamed and taught the benefits of Western civilization. Here, Babar is first seen in the wilds of Africa, a place he naturally has to leave for the drama to begin... After his mother is killed by a hunter (Bambi moment!), Babar escapes and flees to an unnamed city (clearly, though, it is Paris, the fount of all that is good and true) Babar learns to be civilized, and most importantly to adopt the ways of civilized Europe, particularly to learn to wear clothes, which sets him apart from his jungle-wild relatives. Along the way he has a long relationship (apparently an affair) with a French woman, who buys him clothes and gives him a car, as well as a place to live. Their affair lasts for several years, until Babar is fully grown, at which point he abruptly leaves her to return to Africa where, clad in European clothes and armed with the knowledge of civilization, he unseats the elephant tribe's elderly leader and convinces them all to wear clothes. Having been named their king, Babar is now able to marry his cousin(!) Celeste, in whose honor he will build a colonial-style city, named Celesteville, as well as a palace for the royal family. The fantasy elements of the story are magical, but the relation of the text to the real world -- where France's decrepit colonial system was among the most brutal and racist in the world -- is a bit insidious. There isn't a kid in the world who won't respond favorably to the Babar books, but the adults who have the power to introduce these books might want to think twice about what they are really saying. Yeah, yeah, I know I'm taking it all too seriously... And the truth is, we're on board with Babar at our house, although I tend to avoid these earlier books written by Jean De Brunhoff, in favor of the later (less elegant) ones written by his son, Laurent. The later ones just aren't as creepy. (B-)


"The Travels Of Babar"
Written by Jean De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Jean De Brunhoff
(Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932/1934)

Another troublesome clash of cultures, this time with the racist content a bit more transparent. After their marriage, Celeste and Babar tour the world, landing in all sorts of uncomfortable and disturbing situations, including a scene where spear-toting African natives, dressed in grass skirts and looking rather tar babied-out, menace the pachyderm pair... To be fair, white men also take them captive and try to chuck them into a circus... In the end, they make it back home and Babar reclaims his place as the king of the elephants. Celesteville's arch-nemeses are also introduced: the horrid rhinos! (which opens a whole other can of worms... hatred and war...) I always avoid this one, mostly because of the racist imagery, but also because it isn't really a very enjoyable story. (C)


"Babar The King"
Written by Jean De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Jean De Brunhoff
(Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1933/1935)

An almost painfully deliberate explanation of the founding of the capitol city of Celesteville, of the city's layout and day-to-day goings-on, as well as details about the rest of Babar's kingdom. Numerous characters are introduced, including professionals such as a shoe cobbler, a tailor, various artists and officers... Some of these characters recur in later stories, others do not. We see the children in school, Babar throwing a big public celebration, a concert and a royal parade in which all the tradespeople are represented (how French!) Most significantly, Babar bestows European-style clothes to all his subjects. Drama, and some semblance of a plot, is introduced towards the end in a two-page sequence in which the Old Lady is bitten by a poisonous snake, and is rushed to the hospital. Arthur then bashes in the snake's spine and kills it -- there's a bit more gore when Cornelius's house burns down and he, too, is taken to the hospital, with a bloody gash on his head. We don't see either of Babar's friends get well, but when Babar goes to sleep, he is troubled and has a vision-like dream in which winged elephants representing human virtues -- health, work, courage, patience -- chase away the imps of negativity, fear, ignorance, etc. This emulation of an 18th or 19th Century engraving is an odd, archaic touch, showing perhaps how profoundly linked to the old world de Brunhoff was... (at least from our perspective, here in the 21st Century...) Anyway, this is a very detailed and dense work, but not terribly engaging as a dramatic work. Gives insight into the Babar world view, but not much of a story. (C-)


"The ABC Of Babar"
Written by Jean De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Jean De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1934/1936)

(-)


"Zephir's Holidays"
Written by Jean De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Jean De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1936/1937)

(-)


"Babar And His Children"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1938)

One of the nicer Babar books by de Brunhoff the elder, in which we meet Babar and Celeste's triplets, Alexander, Flora and Pom. There's not as much overt class-ism or weird cultural messaging here, although de Brunhoff's idea of kid-friendly drama might not square with that of many modern parents. All he can think of to do is imperil the children, one by one: Flora nearly chokes to death on a baby rattle, Alexander is pitched headlong over a cliff when the nanny loses control of the pram, and Pom goes off sailing in a hat and is almost eaten by a crocodile (which Babar fends off in a fairly lurid, violent fashion). Wheeee! what a fun book! On balance, this is another book which can safely be skipped without much regret. (C-)


"Babar And Father Christmas"
Written by Jean De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Jean De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1940)

Yeah, but did you ever try and squeeze and elephant down a chimney...? (-)


"Babar's Cousin - That Rascal Arthur"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1948?)

A typical mixed bag from the Babar franchise, and one of the earliest books written by De Brunhoff's son, Laurent, who took over for the next five decades. Here, the young elephant Arthur peels off from a family trip to the beach and winds up as a stowaway on an airplane. The pilot is not amused, and pushes Arthur out of the plane with a parachute (!!) whereapon he lofts down onto the veldt and has adventures amidst hippos, giraffes and camels. Overall, this is one of the more entertaining and least offensive of the Babar books -- there are some nice fantastical elements and imaginative artwork. However, these old Babar books wouldn't be the same without something weird and objectionable, so De Brunhoff drops mention of "the Arabs" who live in the area where Arthur got ditched, Indeed, Arthur and Babar reunite in an Arab village, and De Brunhoff takes the opportunity to show off his knowledge of their tea ceremonies, etc., depicting them as generally friendly, although there is a distinct whiff of Great White Hunter-vs-swarthy natives at play as well. The presentation is a little dated, but not overtly prejudiced or offensive. (C+)


"Babar's Picnic"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1949)

(-)


"Babar's Visit To Bird Island"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1952)

(-)


"Babar's Fair"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1955)

(-)


"Babar And The Professor"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1957)

(-)


"Babar's Castle"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1962)

(-)


"Babar's French Lesson"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1963)

A surprisingly strong language primer, with Babar explaining about breakfast, bathing, gardening, cooking, etc. Unlike other, later educational Babar titles, this is pretty engaging, with short instructional paragraphs, spoken in Babar's avuncular voice, each essay written primarily in English, with key words and phrases translated into French. The French text is printed in blue typeface, helping it stand out (and hopefully, sink in). It's very accessible, effective presentation -- worth tracking down if you're looking for good French primers. (B+)


"Babar's Spanish Lesson"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1965)

I haven't seen this one, but I imagine it's on a par with Babar's French Lesson, which means it's probably worth tracking down as well. (-)


"Babar Comes To America"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1965)

(-)


"Babar Learns To Cook"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1967)

(-)


"Babar Loses His Crown"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Harry N. Abrams, 1967)

Babar and his family travel to Paris, where their vacation plans are nearly spoiled after Babar discovers that his crown has been lost, in a luggage-related mishap. We see the sites of Paris -- the Eiffel Tower, the opera house, etc. -- as they dash about the city trying to recover the royal coronet. There's more than a touch of Jacques Tati at play, as the elephant clan bumbles through the capital city, with all its hustle and bustle -- and fear not: all ends well, after all! One of the nicer and least culturally vexing of the Babar books (B)


"Babar's Games" (A Pop-Up Book)
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1968)

(-)


"Babar's Trunk"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1969)

Features several stories: "Babar Goes On A Picnic," "Babar The Gardener" and "Babar At The Seashore..." (-)


"Babar's Moon Trip"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1969)

Or, The Elephant That Roared... (-)


"Babar's Moon Trip" (Pop-Up Book)
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1969)

(-)


"Babar's Birthday Surprise"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1970)

Celeste plans a spectacular surprise for Babar's birthday, asking the royal sculptor to carve his likeness in a mountainside. The whole cast of characters scheme together to keep it a secret, and they succeed even though the mountain they chose just happens to be on Babar's favorite bicycle route. An okay read. (B-)


"Babar's Other Trunk"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1971)

A cardboard-clad "box set" with four small books inside: "Babar The Athlete," "Babar The Camper," "Babar The Painter," and "Babar And The Doctor." (-)


"Babar Visits Another Planet"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1972)

Actually, he was just on 'shrooms at the time... (-)


"Meet Babar And His Family"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Harry Abrams, 1973)

This simple story tracks the family through a year packed with typical middle-class French pursuits -- going for drives in the country, skiing in the winter, etc. There's little of the retrograde sociopolitics or weird, violent drama that makes the original Babar books so uncomfortable. Anyway, it's okay, though not that great. It's doable. (B-)


"Babar's Bookmobile"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1974)

Oh, how cute... Bookmobiles! (-)


"Babar And The Wully-Wully"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1975)

(-)


"Babar Saves The Day"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1976)

(-)


"Babar's Mystery"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1978)

(-)


"Babar's Little Library"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1980)

Prop 13 hit Celesteville especially hard... (-)


"Babar The Magician"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Harry Abrams, 1980)

Babar takes up stage magic and hypnotizes, then levitates, the monkey Zephir. Zephir floats through the air, then out the window, than across the countryside, causing mishaps everywhere he goes. After he wakes up, he remembers nothing about the adventure, and everybody has a good laugh. This isn't a great book, really -- the flying part is too fantastical and potentially upsetting for little kids and, overall, I don't think the story itself is interesting enough for older kids (four year olds, perhaps?)... One of Laurent's lesser works. Skippable. (C-)


"Babar's Anniversary Album"
Written by Jean & Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Jean & Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1981)

Gathers several books under one cover... (-)


"Babar's ABC"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Harry Abrams, 1983)

A passable alphabet primer; some of the art pages are more striking than others, and the example sentences can sound a little flat. Still, not bad. At least it's not "one of those weird Babar books." (B-)


"Babar's Book Of Color"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Harry Abrams, 1984)

The elephant kids -- Pom, Flora, Arthur and Alexander -- come to visit Babar in his art studio and get a lecture on how to mix colors together and paint big red lobsters, blue whales, grey elephants, etc. This book has its heart in the right place, but it's awfully stiff, in narrative terms. Dull, almost. (C+)


"Babar's Counting Book"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Harry Abrams, 1986)

(B-)


"Babar And The Ghost"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1986)

(-)


"Babar's Little Girl"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Harry Abrams, 1987)

Wow... A Babar book without anything weird or objectionable in it... Imagine that! This tells the story of Isabelle, a little girl elephant born after Pom, Flora and Alexander have gotten bigger. She's the apple of everybody's eye, but she's a bit headstrong and has a bad habit of going off by herself and getting lost. Babar scolds her for it once, but the same thing happens again a few days later. Yeah, she gets in trouble again, but before that happens she has a really cool adventure, when she drops in on Boover and Picardee, "old friends of Babar and Celeste," who have a mansion by a faraway river. Not realizing that Isabelle is missing from home, they greet her warmly and have her over to play hide-and-seek, play jazz and learn tap dancing... Then, when they find out Babar is looking for her, they rush her back home as quickly as possible... by hang gliding back to the royal palace! It's a fun, fantasy-filled romp, with no icky racist subtext, or anything like it... To the contrary, Boover and Picardee are one of the nicest gay couples you'll find in the pages of a children's picturebook! (A)


"Babar's Little Circus Star"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1988)

(-)


"Babar's Busy Year"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Harry N. Abrams, 1989)

(B)


"Babar's Little Girl Makes A Friend"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Harry Abrams, 1990)

Darn, he just had to muck it up, didn't he? Having established the charming Isabelle character, De Brunhoff then plunks her down in the middle of a somewhat leaden parable about overcoming intolerance and prejudice. Isabelle wanders off and meets a boy rhinoceros about her same age, they hit it off, but she is surprised when the older elephants give him the cold shoulder. Turns out the elephants and rhinos once had a big war and were enemies... Etc., etc... It takes a while, but things work out and Isabelle and Vic get to be friends. The story is definitely sacrificed in favor of the message: this is preachy and overly obvious. (C)


"Isabelle's New Friend"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1990)

(-)


"Babar's Battle"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1992)

(-)


"Babar's Rescue"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 1993)

(-)


"Babar And The Succotash Bird"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 2000)

(-)


"Babar's Yoga For Elephants"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 2002)

(-)


"Babar's World Tour"
Written by Laurent De Brunhoff
Illustrated by Laurent De Brunhoff
(Random House, 2005)

(-)




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