It is therefore, perhaps, not accidental that in children's stories pictures share the page with the words: Jemima Puddle-Duck, Winnie the Pooh, Good-night Moon as well, of course, as Babar.
Babar was the subject, in the fall of 2008, of an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York, accompanied by a beautiful catalogue by Christine Nelson (2008) that includes an introductory essay by Adam Gopnik (also published in the New Yorker, September 22, 2008; you can read this essay by clicking here). In the beginning, Babar, who had not then been given his famous name, was the subject of bed-time stories, words spoken-out-loud, told by Cécile de Brunhoff to her sons, Laurent and Mathieu. Then her husband Jean, an accomplished painter, started to create illustrations, influenced by Matisse and the Fauves. By clicking here you can see the whole set of page layouts, digital images of the 20.5 x 15.5 cm sheets of paper that Jean de Brunhoff had arranged into a booklet (called a maquette, meaning rough draft or scale model) for the first Babar story. You can also see the pages of the published version of the story, Histoire de Babar (1931). Each page layout in the maquette is of pencil drawings with occasional touches of water colour, and on each page there are one or two sentences written in a round cursive script. By the time Jean de Brunhoff died of tuberculosis in 1937, he had published seven Babar books. After the War, Laurent de Brunhoff took on the series, with a scarcely noticeable break in style. The de Brunhoff family donated the drafts and sketches of father and son to the Morgan Library. In the draft layouts for the first story we see externalization of thought onto paper, thoughtful reorganization, and progression to a final form. And whereas Jean started with pencil sketches in his layouts, Laurent—perhaps because le petit éléphant was by then a fully formed Babar-of-the-mind—started immediately with colour paintings of the characters.
The beginning of Histoire de Babar is that Babar's mother is shot by a hunter. When Jean took up the project of producing a book, Christine Nelson's exhibition, and the images at the website mentioed above, show him experimenting with the balance between words and pictures. For instance, on the seventh page spread of the maquette, after Babar's mother has been killed on the previous page spread, the words (in English translation) are: "Very sad indeed, Babar runs far away from the forest and from the hunter. After several days he comes to a town." In the published version, the text has become "Babar runs away because he is afraid of the hunter. After several days, very tired indeed he comes to a town." In the published version of the page that depicts this scene are three images of Babar. At the top left corner of the page there is an image of him running. Just above the middle the page, there is an image of him wandering. The bottom half of the page has some flowers, the words, and to the right of them the picture of Babar shown at the head of this post. It's a picture of a little elephant drooping, with sad eyes. The idea of sadness has shifted from a word in the earlier draft to a picture in the published form. Jean de Brunhoff thought it better to express sadness visually. One can think of a parent and child in the closeness of their attachment relationship studying this picture as they read the story together. At this point they feel for Babar. They might also feel relieved that their attachment is intact, or perhaps feel how unbearable it would be to have it severed.
Jean de Brunhoff (1931) Histoire de Babar. Paris: Hachette.
Christine Nelson (2008). Drawing Babar: Early drafts and watercolors. New York: Morgan Library.