Cécile de Brunhoff was born on October 16, 1903 and passed away on April 7, 2003 at the ripe old age of 99. Although she was a classically trained pianist, what she is really famous for is her collaboration in writing the Babar children’s books. She invented the stories to tell to her son Laurent when he was sick. Her husband, Jean, wrote them down and illustrated them – he also took sole credit of authorship! Jean and Cécile wrote seven books before his death at age 37 then Laurent took over writing the series. The series has been expanded to include a TV show and has been widely translated.
Babar the little elephant flees the jungle for the big city after his mother is shot by hunters. There he learns the ways of culture and refinement. When he returns to the jungle, he becomes king based on his superior knowledge due to living among men. The series charmed me as a child, but it’s not without its detractors. Some critics claim it is a glorification of French colonialism. New Yorker writer and francophile Adam Gopnik has defended it, saying that it merely shows it’s safer for elephants to live in palaces than in jungles.
Today’s expression, c’est un livre à lire (set uhn leevruh a leer) means “it’s a good read.” Detractors notwithstanding, I think that applies to Babar. Not all stories are political commentary in disguise.