November 09, 1981 12:00 PM

In the minds of the world’s children, the most delightful French export is not Bordeaux wine or baguettes but rather a slightly paunchy yet always beguiling elephant named Babar. In his customary role as the amiable hero of 38 children’s books, Babar has sold more than 5 million U.S. copies, been translated into 12 languages (including Japanese, Hebrew and Hungarian) and starred in two cartoons and a French TV series. This year there is a special event: Babar turns 50, a birthday celebrated by special exhibits in Paris and New York. Morever, Random House has issued a commemorative volume with a glowing introduction by children’s author Maurice Sendak, who praises “the special power and honest sentiment that is the very core of the books.”

The real anniversary bouquets, of course, are reserved for author Laurent de Brunhoff, 56, who in 1946 took over the series begun by his late father, Jean. “Babar lives through me,” says Laurent, who is visiting the U.S. this month as part of the birthday festivities. “Children are my public,” he explains. “I like to travel in their world. They accept imaginary things as reality. Everything is possible.”

Babar was actually dreamed up by Laurent’s mother, Cecile Sabouraud, a pianist, who invented a bedtime story about a family of elephants to entertain Laurent and his older brother, Mathieu. Their father, then a Postimpressionist painter, designed a book to illustrate the saga in 1931. The Story of Babar became an instant success, and Jean completed six more Babar books before he died of tuberculosis in 1937. Laurent finished his schooling, but, at 21, he decided to revive the series. “I had lived with Babar since I was very young and thought he should not disappear with my father,” he explains. “I suppose unconsciously it was to make my father live, too.”

Laurent admits that adopting his father’s style “wasn’t easy. I was very awkward at that age.” But now, 31 books later, he notes, “Most people don’t realize that there were two authors of Babar.” Since 1933 American children have made Babar a bedtime story favorite despite the sometimes leaden translations from de Brunhoff’s native French which their parents dutifully read. (“A windstorm! Down crashes a tree!”) At times Babar’s adventures could tear at the heartstrings. Maurice Sendak, for instance, remembers the sudden death of Babar’s mother as “a landmark experience for me in children’s literature.” For 17 years Random House printed the books’ texts in script before someone pointed out that children were unable to read it themselves. Now the library of Babar books includes a minisize quartet small enough for toddlers to sleep with.

Laurent and his wife, Marie-Claude, a reader with the French publishing house of Gallimard, have two children: Anne, 29, a free-lance photographer, and Antoine, 27, a maker of animated films. Now that they are grown, Laurent looks “inside” for inspiration. He points out that the books have changed with the times—”Cousin Arthur now travels on a motorcycle”—though he adds that “the tenderness of Babar has remained.”

A shy and private man, Laurent likes to walk the banks of the Seine and the public gardens near his modest Left Bank apartment. “I still feel good in the world of Babar,” he says. “That’s why I keep working. It’s sort of a voyage with my characters.” The highest praise comes from Sendak, who writes that Laurent’s work is “a continuation of the order his father bequeathed and an answering letter back from son to father. A letter brimming with health and pleasure, confirming all those father’s fondest hopes. Bon anniversaire, Babar, à vote santé.”

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