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Au Pays de Babar, Les Albums de Jean de Brunhoff, Isabelle Nières-Chevrel, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017.

Overview of *In the Land of Barbar, Jean de Brunhoff’s Picture Books*
Laurence Grove
Bibliographical reference

Isabelle Nières-Chevrel, Au Pays de Babar, Les Albums de Jean de Brunhoff, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017, 322 p.

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1As a university researcher accustomed to reviewing academic books I found myself in the strange position of facing a work which I, or indeed my family, could have been reading for fun. An initial reaction might be that the lively illustrations—more or less a picture on every page, if not more—the helpful tabular presentations, and the myriad of archival photos, coupled with eminently approachable jargon-free style of writing, were the price to pay for a lack of scholarly rigour. None of it. This book encapsulates the dictum of another much-illustrated author: “il faut instruire et plaire”.

2Au Pays de Babar is the first major scholarly analysis of the work of Jean de Brunhoff (1899-1937), concentrating, as we might expect, on the elephant loved by children around the globe. But before Babar we learn of Jean de Brunhoff’s upbringing, and the context of the original creation, leading up to Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant in 1931. The ensuing chapters present and explore the four further volumes – Le Voyage de Babar (1932), Le Roi Babar (1933), L’A.B.C. de Babar (1934) and Les Vacances de Zéphir (1936) – as well as the two posthumous albums, Babar en famille (1938) and Babar et le Père Noël (1941).

3Additional sections and chapters—sometimes interspersed with the main “album” chapters, but also following on from Babar et le Père Noël—discuss the distribution and translations, spin-off products such as the décor for the liner Le Normandie or posthumous TV productions, and twenty-first century influences. The work is truly interdisciplinary, providing biography, close textual and text/image analysis, material overviews (for example a schema outlining the margin sizes in the early albums), and social interpretation of the relevance of the works’ evolving reception. A key point to note is that the book is on Les Albums de Jean de Brunhoff rather than on the character Babar, and as such takes the author as starting point and central axis, and, above all, is only concerned fleetingly with the continuation of the album series by Jean’s son, Laurent de Brunhoff.

4Isabelle Nières-Chevrel’s methodology might be described as fully-illustrated “archivalism”, digging up and contextualising objects from Jean de Brunhoff’s childhood, interviews with those who knew him, or publishers’ documentation, with primary and secondary sources referenced meticulously. The approach is light on critical theory, which would rarely be appropriate for such a study, although, in the interests of the broader discussion, the readings of Babar that have equated him with an apology for colonialism might have been addressed more fully.

5Overall, however, it is hard to find fault with this work in any way. One might quibble that it is expensive, but given the wealth of high-quality full-colour documentation it is not overpriced. Au Pays de Babar, like the elephant himself, has universal appeal that is set to withstand the test of time, and as such Nières-Chevrel’s chef d’oeuvre is a true tribute to Jean de Brunhoff.

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Electronic reference

Laurence Grove, Au Pays de Babar, Les Albums de Jean de Brunhoff, Isabelle Nières-Chevrel, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017.”Strenæ [Online], 14 | 2019, Online since 05 April 2019, connection on 21 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Laurence Grove

Professor of French and Text/Image Studies, University of Glasgow. Director of the Stirling Maxwell Centre for the Study of Text/Image Cultures

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