Laurent de Brunhoff still reigns over his royal legacyIt's been seven years since we've seen a new story involving Babar, the king of the elephants. Before his untimely death in 1937, French artist Jean de Brunhoff turned a family bedtime story into an international favorite when he wrote and illustrated the original The Story of Babar in 1931 and followed it with six more Babar books. The eldest of Jean's three sons, Laurent, carried on the adventure of Babar and has since published over 30 Babar stories which have been translated into 17 languages and sold millions of copies all over the world. The stories have influenced the imaginations of generations as they turned the colorful pages and learned more about these adventurous and fashionable elephants who walk upright, wear glasses and hats, drive cars, raise children, and exist in their own world with humans as if there were no barriers. Now Babar, his family, and the wise old Cornelius are back in a new adventure from the imagination of Laurent de Brunhoff called Babar and the Succotash Bird. The new book is about Babar's son, Alexander, who meets a magician bird, a Succotash bird, who shows the young elephant tricks and captures his imagination. But unfortunately for Alexander, there are two types of Succotash birds, good and bad, and the story illustrates the consequences when one is confused for another during a family hiking trip to the mountains. Laurent's signature bright watercolors and interesting mix of elephant and human characteristics are as entertaining as ever. "You know, it may happen in conversation, but when I have an idea it is so visual sometimes," said Laurent from his part-time home in New York City. "When I travel somewhere I want to use what I've seen, but Babar doesn't go there, it's just used in the Babar world," he explained. "This time for the new book, I really wanted to have some magic, because in all the other Babar books there is no magic really, it's very real the life they have. That's why I wanted a magician. And since I like birds, this magician is a bird, a Succotash bird. In fact my wife (writer, Phyllis Rose) invented it. I had only some noise for him, and she said, oh, it sounds like succotash! I thought it was very funny and thought it was a very good idea."The release of the new book will mark several important milestones in de Brunhoff's work and life. The man behind Babar turns 75 in August, and a switch in publishers will bring the reissuing of all Laurent's classic Babar stories, some of which have also been turned into an animated series for HBO. Laurent admits that going seven years without another Babar story has been unusual for him, but it has given him time to concentrate on other artistic pursuits as well as traveling and hiking, particularly in the American West. "I really wanted to put the elephant a little bit on the side and spend more time with my old painting," he said. "I like to do abstract watercolors. I like the medium of watercolors but I like to do some large paintings, which are abstract; even if they are inspired by the sea and the sky, they are abstract. I started to learn how to paint in an academy in Paris and I switched very early to abstract painting in the '50s. I showed my paintings at that time on different occasions, but after 10 or 15 years I was so busy with the books it was too difficult to keep the two worlds together, and little by little I dropped painting. It's hardly 10 years ago I started again to paint, and I must say I'm happy with that."At a show for his abstract paintings a few years back at the Mary Ryan Gallery on 57th Street in New York, (where the original artwork for the new book will be exhibited this fall) Laurent said it was amusing to see the reactions of people who anticipated that his works wouldmirror the Babar stories. "It was well received I must say; still people are expecting me to draw elephants so they are a bit surprised when they see these abstract paintings."Laurent said the idea for the new book came to him quickly during a time when he had been hiking and camping in the High Sierras of Yosemite National Park. "Suddenly I had an idea for this book, and it was very fast, it came very strongly in my mind, very precisely. Some pictures you will see the landscape is inspired by the American West, some of the canyon lands, and some of Yosemite," he said.
Today Laurent's family consists of a son, daughter, and grandson who live in Paris, as well as his two brothers whom he is very close to, and his beloved mother, Cecile, the original creator of the character of Babar 70 years ago. Like Laurent and his brothers, his children grew up with Babar, yet as far as his children continuing the Babar legacy, Laurent says the experience has been different for them. "You know I was 12 years old when my father died, so there was this emptiness . . . we missed Babar. But I'm still alive, and they've already started their own lives. So I don't think suddenly, when I am no longer on this world, they will take over." Regardless, the release of Babar and the Succotash Bird, subsequent reissuing of the Babar backlist, HBO animated series, and other promotional campaigns currently in the works continue to share a family gift sure to endure for generations.