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Artist Behind Iconic Children's Book Character Babar the Elephant Dies at 98

Laurent de Brunhoff carried on his father's legacy by writing over 45 books featuring Babar the elephant

<p>Jeremy Bembaron/Sygma/Sygma via Getty </p> Laurent de Brunhoff with Babar the Elephant

Jeremy Bembaron/Sygma/Sygma via Getty

Laurent de Brunhoff with Babar the Elephant

Laurent de Brunhoff, the artist who brought beloved the children's character Babar the elephant to life, has died. He was 98.

According to the New York Times, de Brunhoff died on Friday at his home in Key West, Fla. due to complications from a stroke, his wife Phyllis Rose told the outlet.

Babar the elephant, who has appeared in dozens of children's books dating back to the 1930s, has been a toy, a movie character in films like Babar: The Movie and Babar: King of the Elephants and more. But before all of that, the elephant was the brainchild of de Brunhoff's father, Jean de Brunhoff.

The French artist and author recalled his parents making up a story for his brother and him, just five years old at the time, about a young elephant who leaves his home in the jungle for Paris, and gets taken in by a wealthy old woman along the way. It was a joint parental effort: His mother called him Bebe the elephant, which his father later changed to Babar.

"My mother started to tell us a story to distract us," the artist told National Geographic in a 2014 interview. "We loved it, and the next day we ran to our father’s study, which was in the corner of the garden, to tell him about it. He was very amused and started to draw. And that was how the story of Babar was born."

<p> Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty </p> Laurent De Brunhoff

Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty

Laurent De Brunhoff

Jean fleshed out the character of Babar for the original 1931 picture book "Histoire de Babar" (or "The Story of Babar"). The elder de Brunhoff published six more books — each one of them featuring illustrated stories of the whimsical elephant making his best effort to fit in in Paris — before his death in 1937 from tuberculosis, according to the Associated Press.

Although Laurent was only 12 years old when his father died, he had already been influenced to pursue a life of painting and art, and by 21 years old, he had turned his attention to Babar.

De Brunhoff's first book featuring the elephant, "Babar's Cousin: That Rascal Arthur," hit shelves in 1946. By the time of his death, he had published over 40 more books featuring the character and turned Babar into a children's book empire.

<p>Yves Forestier/Sygma via Getty </p> Laurent de Brunhoff

Yves Forestier/Sygma via Getty

Laurent de Brunhoff

The picture book series hasn't been without controversy, however — critics have argued that de Brunhoff's books glorified French colonialism and featured caricatures of African people. Per AP, the Chilean author Ariel Dorfman wrote in the 1980s that the series were an "implicit history that justifies and rationalizes the motives behind an international situation in which some countries have everything and other countries almost nothing."

In his 2014 interview, the author expressed his regrets for some of his earlier works and agreed with Dorfman's assessment.

"In some way, it's a little embarrassing to see Babar fighting with Black people in Africa," he told National Geographic. "My second book, 'Babar's Picnic,' was also inspired by my father's drawing. Some years later, I felt embarrassed about this book, and I asked the publisher to withdraw it."

<p>Yves Forestier/Sygma via Getty</p> De Brunhoff signing authographs for Babar's 70th birthday

Yves Forestier/Sygma via Getty

De Brunhoff signing authographs for Babar's 70th birthday

De Brunhoff married twice. He and his first wife Marie-Claude Bloch, had a son, Antoine de Brunhoff. He and his second wife Rose shared daughter, Anne de Brunhoff. Late in his career, he began to co-write the Babar books with Rose, an author and former professor of English. She told National Geographic that the pair bounced ideas back and forth to bring later Babar stories to life.

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"It works differently depending on the book and the inspiration," she said in 2014. "Sometimes I'll see that Laurent is interesting in drawing a particular thing, so I'll encourage him to draw more of that thing. Then I'll make up a story afterwards to tie these drawings together."

The author often said that "Babar, c'est moi" (or "Babar, that's me"). He told the magazine that he and the elephant are one in the same simply because they've spent their lives together.

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"He's been my whole life, for years and years, drawing the elephant. That's why I say 'Babar, c'est moi.'"

De Brunhoff is survived by his brothers, children, wife, stepson and several grandchildren.

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