NEW YORK – Once upon a time, a woman who belonged to an illustrious French publishing family was trying to get her two young sons to sleep.

Perhaps sensing the fascination children have with very large animals, she told them about a baby elephant who had lived an idyllic life in the jungle, adored by his mother, until one day, she was shot by a hunter.

Overcome with grief, the orphaned elephant ran away to a city (which bore an uncanny resemblance to Paris) and there he met a woman who showered him with gifts, including a suit “of a becoming shade of green.”

So began the adventures of Babar, the beloved protagonist of nearly four dozen children’s books and now the subject of a small, charming exhibit at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum.

It turns out that the woman who told that bedtime story, Cecile de Brunhoff, was married to a painter whose family were well-connected publishers. Her husband, Jean de Brunhoff, transformed the bare-bones tale his wife told their sons into one of the best loved children’s books of all time, “The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant.”

Jean de Brunhoff wrote six more Babar stories after the first one was published in 1931, before dying at age 37 of spinal tuberculosis. Several years after his death in 1937, the family franchise was taken over by Jean and Cecile’s eldest son, Laurent, who had listened to the bedtime story for the first time as a child of 5.

Now 83 and living in New York, Laurent de Brunhoff, also a painter, has written 37 more Babar books that have transported the elephant and his family all over the world, and even into outer space. Several years ago, Babar ventured into the realm of fitness with “Babar’s Yoga for Elephants.”

In 2004, the Morgan Library, which is known for its collection of rare books and manuscripts, acquired nearly all the working drafts for Jean de Brunhoff’s first book, as well as drawings for the first book written by his son, “Babar’s Cousin: That Rascal Arthur,” published in 1946.

One gallery is devoted to the father’s work, another to the son’s. In each of the rooms, pages from the published books are displayed next to earlier drafts and sketches, highlighting each man’s painstaking editorial and artistic process.

The exhibition closes Jan. 4.


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