Kent State’s Babar Collection Welcomes Visitors and Scholars to University Library

High up on the 12th floor of Kent State University Library lies a historical wonderland of adventure, where one of the world’s largest Babar collections comes to life with the flick of a light switch.

The lovable elephant of children’s literature, with a multigenerational following since 1931, shares his human mannerisms through 3,600 different items, including a 6-foot-tall plush Babar, dressed to perfection in his signature three-piece green suit. The life-sized pachyderm is one of the attention-grabbing artifacts in the Babar Collection of John L. Boonshaft at Kent State's Department of Special Collections and Archives.

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For Boonshaft, Babar was a passion. He spent a lifetime collecting items from around the world, including rare, first-edition books in nearly 20 languages, clothing, toiletries, footwear, artwork, food and furniture. These are just a few of the items neatly wrapped in tissue paper, packaged in gray boxes and carefully stored in a temperature-controlled room atop University Library.

The extensive collection found its way to Kent State through Ann Meinzen Hildebrand, a now-retired Kent State English professor and Babar scholar who corresponded with Boonshaft and encouraged him to bequeath his lifetime passion to the university. After his passing in 1997, Kent State organized the items and opened the room to the public.

The idea for the books began 85 years ago with a bedtime story that Cecile de Brunhoff invented for her children about a little elephant who left the jungle for a big city resembling Paris. The children liked the story so much, they asked their father, Jean de Brunhoff, to draw the elephant. The drawing eventually evolved into the first book, Historie de Babar, in 1931. De Brunhoff went on to write six more books before he died at age 37 of tuberculosis. His son, Laurent, eventually took over writing and illustrating more than 45 books. 

Throughout the century, Babar has grown into one of the most recognized children's characters in the world. There are more than 30,000 Babar publications. More than 8 million books have been sold. Babar also was turned into a TV series, which was broadcast in 30 languages in more than 150 countries, making Babar one of the largest distributed animation shows in history.

At Kent State, Babar’s legacy lives on in his very own special room where he awaits visitors who are eager to welcome his human-like essence and embrace a timeless, imaginary world – just the way Boonshaft would have wanted.

Learn more about the Babar Collection of John L. Boonshaft

Learn more about Kent State’s Special Collections and Archives

POSTED: Thursday, February 2, 2017 12:07 PM
Updated: Thursday, December 8, 2022 08:42 PM
Kristin Anderson