Fictional friends are familiar to many generations

By Samantha Critchell, The Associated Press
Friday December 14, 2001

Babar, Curious George are renewed and fun for kids 


NEW YORK — It’s a chilly winter night and the gang’s all here. Mom and dad, teens and toddlers, Babar, the Nutcracker and Curious George are snuggled together, enjoying a good story. 

This could be a scene from 1951 or 2001 since the fictional characters have remained favorites with adults and kids all these years. 

They’ve lasted because they’re interesting and compelling and they go through rites of passage that children of any generation can relate to. 

“I’m so in love with the little girl in this story,” says Maurice Sendak, who illustrated a version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Nutcracker” in 1984. “Her inner life is so dynamic and full of curiosity — and those are the kids I like in real life.” 

The Sendak book, published by Crown and out of print for a number of years, is back in stores. Hoffmann originally penned the fairy tale about a girl on the threshold of womanhood in the 19th century. 

Sendak continues: “Kids see right through dumbed-down books. Parents buy into them and grandparents buy into this notion of what kids ‘should’ read ... but the luckiest children are those who discover a great story, like the ‘Nutcracker,’ and not have it forced on them.” 

The adventure, excitement and emotion of growing up is always modern, says Sendak, but the “Nutcracker,” when kept true to Hoffman’s vision, is quirky and a little scary, which keeps children coming back for more. 

It’s a tale often shortened for “children’s” versions and theatrical performances but, given the chance, Sendak says young readers remain engrossed in the full story. 

“I and they (children) can appreciate and love simple books with depth. That’s very different than ‘dumbed down.”’ 

Laurent de Brunhoff picked up where his father Jean left off when he died in 1937: writing and illustrating Babar books. His father insisted — and Laurent de Brunhoff has continued — to write “good” books that aren’t targeted to a specific audience. 

The formula seems to work. Babar is celebrating his 70th birthday, with Laurent doing 30 books in addition to his father’s seven. 

(He’s also starred in movies and TV shows.) 

“When I do a book, I never say ‘This is for children so I should do this and that for them.’ I’m doing it for me. I’m living out my childhood fantasies. But little kids today happen to have the same needs and have the same fun as little kids in the 1930s,” de Brunhoff explains. 

Consistent themes are problem solving, family, friends, fun and adventure. Who can’t relate to those? the author asks. 

And de Brunhoff says adults enjoy the stories, including the most recent “Babar and the Succotash Bird” (Harry N. Abrams), because they have fond memories of the elephant from their own childhood but they also have a newfound appreciation for the poetic style of the books. 

“Pat the Bunny” author Dorothy Kunhardt’s daughter Edith also has furthered the original book, making it a series, including the newest titles “Pat the Birthday Bunny” and “Tickle the Pig.” But a spokeswoman for Random House Children’s Books says that throughout its many printings, “Pat the Bunny” hasn’t undergone any significant changes since it was published in 1940. 

The familiar smell of the scratch-and-sniff flowers is inviting to youngsters and pleasantly nostalgic to parents. 

Margaret and H.A. Rey spent at least a year on each Curious George book and the effort shows, says Maire Gorman, vice president of special markets for Houghton Mifflin Publishers. The couple didn’t have children of their own so they understood the need to really engage parents and grandparents in the now-60-year-old monkey’s adventures, she observes. 

The Reys wrote seven books as a couple between 1941 and 1966. Margaret then did a Curious George filmstrip series in the 1970s that has been turned into a “new adventure” series of books. 

Gorman attributes their enduring popularity to George’s overwhelming desire to experience life. “Everyone has had times when their curiosity got them into situations they didn’t anticipate,” she says. 

Luckily for George, and his fans, there is always a comforting resolution.