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Brainiac

Babar back at Harvard

Jean de Brunhoff via Houghton Library

A hand-colored proof for ABC de Babar. Original art by Jean de Brunhoff.

Babar, the French children’s book character, is known for his refined taste, so it’s no surprise he’d like Harvard. In the 1965 book, “Babar Comes to America,” the dapper, illustrated elephant makes a stopover in Cambridge, where he chats with students, relaxes at the Lampoon, and cheers the Crimson in the Harvard-Yale game. Now, archival material from one of the first Babar books is on display through Aug. 31 in a new exhibition at Harvard.

“Houghton Library is the perfect place for this material. Because it’s in French, its brilliance is not accessible to everybody, but everybody at Harvard speaks French,” jokes Phyllis Rose, wife of Laurent de Brunhoff, 91, whose father, Jean de Brunhoff, created the series in 1931 and who has carried on the work with dozens of Babar books of his own since his father’s death.

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The exhibition features preparatory drawings by Jean de Brunhoff as he experimented with different styles for his eventual book, “ABC de Babar.” That book, an A-Z guide to the alphabet and the fourth in the Babar series, was published in 1934. Harvard was interested in collecting the material as an exemplar of how a commercially successful children’s book was created and published in the 1930s.

The library’s children’s book holdings also include first editions and original illustrations for “Alice in Wonderland” and “James and the Giant Peach.” The Babar material, “documents an aspect of book production for which we didn’t have such good evidence,” says Hope Mayo, curator of printing and graphic arts at the library and curator of the exhibition.

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The Babar books have become a subject of controversy over the years. In the original story, a hunter kills Babar’s mother, and afterward the young elephant travels to a city where he learns the value of Western civilization. Later, he returns to Africa and shares what he’s learned with his fellow elephants, who unite to create an enlightened kingdom. To many, the story reads as pro-colonialsm parable, and it has generated heated debate, including a 1995 book, “Should We Burn Babar?”

The exhibition, which includes a new watercolor illustration by Laurent de Brunhoff of Babar arriving at Harvard, sidesteps the political aspects of Babar. Instead, it focuses on the fourth book’s production process. Once he had a template, Jean de Brunhoff made a set of finished drawings in black ink, which he sent to the printer, who photographed them to create printing blocks used to create black line proofs. The proofs went back to the artist who colored them by hand and returned them for color separation and final printing.

“I think its importance lies in the fact that in the production process, it’s typical,” says Mayo. “It is a good representation of how a commercially successful children’s book was produced in the 1930s.”

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The finished version of “ABC de Babar” features facing pages depicting scenes full of things that begin with a given letter: desert, dromedaries, devils dancing, date palms, dragon, a dais on which a king and queen sit, all start with “D.”

“It grew and grew in his mind until the pages got more and more elaborate,” says Rose. “For each page, there are 20 to 30 things that begin with that letter.”

Some of the correspondences between letters and images translate better than others. In addition to “D,” Rose observes that pages for the letters “T” (Babar on a terrace drinking tea) and “C” also work well in both English and French. To that list she might have added “H,” if de Brunhoff had had the foresight to set those pages in Harvard Yard.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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