Babar and the Professor – written and illustrated by Laurent de Brunhoff
Random House, 1957 (translated from the French edition of 1956)
Babar and Father Christmas – written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff
Random House, 1940
While there are stylistic differences between the original Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff (1899-1937) and his son, Laurent, (b. 1925), I love the works by both père et fils. Some are long out-of-print, and are not necessarily in tune with the presumed attention span of today’s readers. Most of them are of irreplaceable beauty, and still lots of fun. In Babar and the Professor, the elephant king’s mentor and mother figure, the old lady, pays a visit with her brother, Professor Grifaton, a kindly and distinguished academic who seems to specialize in butterflies. The pictures are splendid scenes of Babar’s fantasy world, where animals play human roles in a society where everyone has a specific niche and is well-respected for fulfilling it. (My edition has the text in script, the original format of the series.)
The plot involves several mishaps and near-disasters, with a reward at the end. The considerate old lady arrives with presents for Babar’s children, Pom, Flora, and Alexander. But the professor also has children, Nadine and Colin, and the combined families create some imaginative if risky events. There is a tea party with eclairs in a cave, and a medieval fair with costumes, but Alexander also falls into a tunnel. Fortunately, the well-trained adult elephants take control of the situation and turn it into a productive day: “…and you, my dear Professor, should consult with my friend Podular, the sculptor. Exploring caves is his hobby.” The expedition also includes Dr. Capoulosse and Olur, the mechanic. There is an incredible two-page spread of elephants, outfitted with illuminated helmets, rowing through the cave on inflatable rafts.
For children who are mechanically minded, there is a diagram of an excursion steamer, its cutaway interior carefully labeled. From the captain’s cabin to the ballroom and kitchen, it is well-appointed. The book concludes with a scene of transitions. Babar and Celeste award Professor Grifaton a medal as Benefactor of Celesteville. Meanwhile, “The children, in their pajamas, watch the proceedings over television.”
Babar and Father Christmas was published after Jean’s untimely death. According to the introductory section by Maurice Sendak (!) of the collection Babar’s Anniversary Album, Laurent colored some of the original unfinished black-and-white pictures. Babar’s children, along with their cousin, Arthur, and their monkey friend Zéphir, eagerly compose a list of toys they would like for Christmas. When they don’t receive a reply to their carefully written letter, Babar wonders why Father Christmas doesn’t visit his country, so he sets off for Europe in order to meet the benevolent figure directly. There have been many critiques of the Babar books as colonialist texts in which Babar and Celesteville need to be civilized through contact with European culture. I guess this book won’t persuade people otherwise.
Babar locates a charming hotel, using it as a base for his search. Everyone is helpful, from some resident mice, to an artist’s model named Lazzaro Caompeotti, to a professor who tries to decode Gothic script. Babar, attired for the cold of winter, rides in a sled and travels by skis in locations that recall the Alps. The title page of the book pictures their encounter. Babar is wearing an elegant blue and white robe; Father Christmas is dressed in red. Both are smoking pipes. A small table seems to hold both tea and, perhaps, a bottle of sherry.
Similar to the ship diagram in Babar and the Professor, there is a detailed floor plan, this time of Father Christmas’s home and workspace. Instead of labels, there is a caption in small font explaining the building, which includes rooms for toys, dolls, tin soldiers, toy guns (!), and the “dwarfs’ dormitories.” By the story’s end, Babar has ensured a happy future for the children of Celesteville. The incomparable Babar books are timeless.