The Travels of Babar

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The Travels of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

1932

Illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff

More than any other children’s picture books, the original format Babar books are objects of wonder. Grandly sized, they provide the double-spread illustrations the room they need to breath. The cream colored paper gives depth and warmth to the beautifully rendered watercolor and black line drawings. The text is in cursive, uniquely mysterious for the young reader still struggling with print. These are books that demand to be read aloud, ensuring that the child’s eyes stay focused on the rich illustrations where they belong. The original editions were reproduced directly from the author’s notebooks with his own handwritten cursive – hence the unusual format. To read Babar in anything other than their original renditions is to miss the transcendent experience. The facsimile reproductions have been reprinted from time to time and can be found with some searching. Settle for nothing less.

The saga begins with the birth of Babar, whose idyllic childhood is abruptly shattered by the death of his mother at the hands of a hunter. Jean de Brunhoff did not shrink from tragedy, but he presented tribulations matter-of-factly. After a few tears, Babar quickly moves on, in this case to a French town where his first order of business is to get outfitted – in a green suit, derby hat, and spats, no less – a transformation that causes him to rise from four legs to two. Clothes figure prominently in the Babar books. Eventually, he returns to the forest where he is crowned king and marries his cousin, Celeste. After the wedding and coronation, the couple stands alone together, their backs to us, staring out at the starry sky – the only black and white illustration in the series – a moving tribute to love.

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The Story of Babar sets the stage. In The Travels of Babar, Jean de Brunhoff was able to give full rein to his inventive imagination. What begins as a honeymoon in a hot air balloon leads to a capsizing on an island, an attack by cannibals, a ride on a distractible whale, a rescue by a passing ship, and a stint as captives in a circus. When Babar and Celeste return to their native land, they find the decimation of war. In a delightfully bizarre piece of performance art, Babar transforms the backsides of the elephants with huge painted eyes, carrot tail noses, and green and orange wigs. Alarmed by such monsters, the rhinoceroses flee in panic.

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Jean de Brunhoff wrote The Story of Babar in 1931 for his own sons, basing it on a sickroom tale told by his wife. He wrote six more books over the next six short years before he died of tuberculosis. His son, Laurent, took up the Babar mantle and created a relentless stream of books. Best to stick to the pere, whose inspired brilliance and originality of style were one-of-a-kind. His books have a charming simplicity and freshness which have no equal. It is the small imaginative details which delight with each reencounter – the flying machine drawn by a flock of white doves, Zephir’s thatch-roofed rondeval on a treehouse platform, the children’s swing suspended between Cornelius’s tusks, Father Christmas riding on a zebra.

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The seven Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff: The Story of Babar, The Travels of Babar, Babar the King, The A.B.C. of Babar, Babar and Zephir, Babar and His Children, Babar and Father Christmas.

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