Rare Finds

Babar Comes to Houghton Library

Reprinted with permission from Fine Books & Collections, Barbara Basbanes Richter, author

Harvard’s Houghton Library recently acquired the complete archive of Jean de Brunhoff’s preparatory materials for his 1934 alphabet book, ABC de Babar. Over one hundred sketches, hand-colored proofs, and other items were gifted to the library by Laurent de Brunhoff and Laurent’s wife, Phyllis Rose.

Jean de Brunhoff published the first Babar book in 1931, and by his death in 1937 wrote and illustrated seven stories about Babar, the orphan elephant who eventually becomes king of the pachyderms. In 1945, Laurent de Brunhoff, Jean’s oldest son, resumed the Babar series, and has written and illustrated more than thirty additional titles.

“The ABC de Babar was the fourth book of Jean’s series and differed from its predecessors in that it did not tell a story but was an alphabet book,” explained Hope Mayo, the Houghton Library’s curator of printing and graphic arts. “It’s charming, and it suits the Houghton very well, because the collection demonstrates how a commercially successful children’s book was produced in the 1930s,” she continued.


Babar art by Jean de Brunhoff (as seen on Biblio.com)

How good is your French? Can you spot all 28 words that start with “T”? Original art work by Jean de Brunhoff for ABC de Babar (MS Typ 1186, Houghton Library, Harvard University).


Now through August 31, eighteen of the items donated by the couple will be on display in the Amy Lowell Room. “This selection of sketches and proofs from the preparatory stages demonstrates the sequence of creating a children’s book,” said Mayo. An original drawing by Laurent de Brunhoff and commissioned by the Houghton is also on display, with Babar walking up the library steps with his abcedaire in hand.


Babar Brings his ABC to Houghton Library crop

Babar Brings His ABC to Houghton Library. Original watercolor and gouache drawing by Laurent de Brunhoff (TypDr 2070.B240.16b, Houghton Library, Harvard University)


The ABC de Babar used characters and settings from de Brunhoff’s earlier books to illustrate each letter of the alphabet. For example, a page for the letter “T” (pictured at top) shows Babar and his family sitting on a terrasse, drinking tea, and enjoying a view of the Tour Eiffel and tulips. On this page alone are 28 words in French that begin with the letter “T,” a tour de force that further demonstrates why Babar has remained a global icon for eight decades.

Babar Comes to the Houghton runs from June 9 through August 31 in the Amy Lowell Room at Harvard University’s Houghton Library.

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1 Comment

  • My mum read Babar to me when l was very young.I’m 61 now and have been drawing all my life.In the 1980’s while cycling home in London l came across a pile of books thrown out with the trash.amongst them were four 1st edition 1934 English Babar books and a French 1st edition 1936 Zephir book! lf anyone wants to buy them,let me know.JM.

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