Little elephant Babar is star of NYC exhibit

NEW YORK — Once upon a time, a woman who belonged to an illustrious French publishing family was trying to get her two young sons to sleep.

Perhaps sensing the fascination children have with very large animals, she told them about a baby elephant who had lived an idyllic life in the jungle, adored by his mother, until one day, she was shot by a hunter.

Overcome with grief, the orphaned elephant ran away to a city (which bore an uncanny resemblance to Paris) and there he met a woman who showered him with gifts, including a suit "of a becoming shade of green."

So began the adventures of Babar, the beloved protagonist of nearly four dozen children's books and now the subject of a small, charming exhibit at New York's Morgan Library & Museum.

It turns out that the woman who told that bedtime story, Cecile de Brunhoff, was married to a painter whose family were well-connected publishers. Her husband, Jean de Brunhoff, transformed the bare-bones tale his wife told their sons into one of the best loved children's books of all time, "The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant."

Jean de Brunhoff wrote six more Babar stories after the first one was published in 1931, before dying at age 37 of spinal tuberculosis. Several years after his death in 1937, the family franchise was taken over by Jean and Cecile's eldest son, Laurent, who had listened to the bedtime story for the first time as a child of 5.

Now 83 and living in New York, Laurent de Brunhoff, also a painter, has written 37 more Babar books that have transported the elephant and his family all over the world, and even into outer space. Several years ago, Babar ventured into the realm of fitness with "Babar's Yoga for Elephants."

In 2004, the Morgan Library, which is known for its collection of rare books and manuscripts, acquired nearly all the working drafts for Jean de Brunhoff's first book, as well as drawings for the first book written by his son, "Babar's Cousin: That Rascal Arthur," published in 1946.

One gallery is devoted to the father's work, another to the son's. In each of the rooms, pages from the published books are displayed next to earlier drafts and sketches, highlighting each man's painstaking editorial and artistic process.

"It's very rare to have such a complete record of a work we know so well," said Christine Nelson, the Morgan's curator of literary and historical manuscripts.

Some of the changes that the elder de Brunhoff made over successive drafts are surprising. In early versions of the first Babar story, for example, there was no Celeste — Babar's bride — and Babar wore a gray suit, not his trademark green.

In an even more dramatic change, the initial drafts began with the scene in which Babar's mother is gunned down by a hunter.

De Brunhoff apparently reconsidered, deciding instead to begin on a note of domestic bliss. And so the final version opens with scenes of the baby elephant being rocked to sleep by his mother and playing with the other little elephants in the forest.

Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker magazine correspondent who also has written children's books, notes in an essay in the exhibition catalog that some parents are so horrified by the mother's death that they omit this scene entirely when reading Babar to their children. He says the apparently raging debate in his circle of New York City parents over whether to include this scene is a stand-in for a larger concern over what children should be exposed to at an early age.

And there is yet another controversy surrounding the Babar tales. Gopnik, who lived in Paris for many years and has written extensively about French culture, introduces the notion put forward by some critics that Babar is nothing but a thinly disguised defense of colonialism.

According to this interpretation, Babar embodies the innocent from a foreign land who arrives in a European capital, acquires a taste for civilized living and returns home to rule over his people with his newly adopted — and ultimately corrosive — bourgeois ideals.

Gopnik doesn't buy it — and neither does Nelson.

To Gopnik, the story of Babar is a parable of growing up. Just like Babar, children are eventually obliged to give up the freedom of the jungle — including being able to run around without clothes like Babar does when he arrives in the big city — for the constraints and the pleasures of civilization.

Even children understand, he says, that "while it is a very good thing to be an elephant, still, the life of an elephant is dangerous, wild and painful. It is therefore a safer thing to be an elephant in a house near a park."

For Nelson, too, the nursery story characters whom Cecile de Brunhoff invented for her children one evening have become much more than just literary creations.

Babar, she says, "is a book about coming of age, behaving properly, living well and assuming responsibility — in short, an adult story."

Prior knowledge of the elephant king is not a requirement for this exhibit. Copies of some of the Babar books are available for visitors to browse through.

Even if you grew up with the Anglo tales of Winnie the Pooh and Peter Rabbit, and your own children are devotees of Harry Potter, this exhibit is likely to leave you enchanted with the story of the goodhearted French elephant in his becoming green suit.

The exhibition closes Jan. 4.

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