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Famous Children’s Author Dies at 98

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Renowned author and illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff, known for extending the beloved Babar the Elephant series, died in Key West, Florida, at the age of 98. Born in Paris, France, and later a U.S. resident, de Brunhoff passed away on March 22, 2024, after a two-week stay in hospice care, according to his widow, Phyllis Rose.

De Brunhoff was just 12 years old when his father, Jean de Brunhoff, the original creator of Babar, succumbed to tuberculosis. Jean de Brunhoff had first introduced the adventurous elephant Babar, who eventually becomes the ruler of the fictional Celesteville, in the early 1930s.

Laurent de Brunhoff followed his father’s path, continuing the Babar series and playing a significant role in its development into an international multimedia franchise that includes books, TV shows, and movies.

De Brunhoff’s narrative style was marked by a minimalist approach to text and a commitment to preserving his father’s gentle, nuanced illustration style. This father-son collaboration crafted a world adored by millions around the globe, earning accolades from figures such as French General Charles de Gaulle and American author Maurice Sendak.

The Babar series originated from a tale improvised by de Brunhoff’s mother, Cecile de Brunhoff, to amuse her young children. This family tale evolved into the first Babar book, “The Story of Babar,” published in 1931. Despite Jean de Brunhoff’s early demise, the character of Babar continued through Laurent’s dedication. His creations, such as “Babar at the Circus” and “Babar’s Yoga for Elephants,” have perpetuated Babar’s adventures for generations.

However, the legacy of Babar has been subject to controversy. Some critics have suggested that elements of the series propagate colonial and racist ideologies, particularly in its depiction of Babar’s education in Paris and its subsequent impact on his kingdom. These criticisms, notably expressed by Chilean author Ariel Dorfman in 1983, have initiated substantial debate. Nonetheless, other commentators, including writer Adam Gopnik, have defended the series, interpreting it as a satirical commentary on colonial imagination.

In reflecting on his work, de Brunhoff revealed a complex relationship with his creations. He expressed regret over certain representations in the series, specifically in “Babar’s Picnic,” and made efforts to address these concerns.

De Brunhoff’s life was full of artistic and personal achievements beyond Babar. He was married twice, and his second wife, Phyllis Rose, played a significant role in the later Babar publications. Despite his large audience, de Brunhoff often stated that he did not write specifically for children but for himself, crafting stories about his friend Babar.

The death of Laurent de Brunhoff marks an end to a significant era in the history of Babar, a character that symbolizes the power of storytelling to engage and educate. Through decades of books, television adaptations, and films, Babar’s tales of adventure, leadership, and learning have endeared themselves to global audiences. De Brunhoff’s artistic skill and vision have secured Babar’s enduring presence in children’s literature and beyond.

The work of Laurent de Brunhoff, which spans over 70 years, continues to inspire. It encapsulates the spirit of discovery and the importance of understanding different cultures.

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