French author-illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff, acclaimed for carrying on the legacy of beloved character Babar the elephant, first illustrated by his father Jean, died on March 22 at his home in Key West, Fla., following complications from a stroke. He was 98.

Laurent de Brunhoff was born August 25, 1925, in Paris, France, the eldest son of artistically accomplished parents Jean, a painter, and Cécile, a pianist. Laurent’s early years were an essential part of the familiar Babar origin story. Laurent was five years old, and his brother Mathieu four, when their mother made up a favorite bedtime adventure about a baby elephant who was dramatically orphaned in the great forest and found his way to the city. “We were so excited about the story, and we told our father about it,” de Brunhoff told PW in a 2000 interview.

“My father was an Impressionist painter,” de Brunhoff recalled. “I think he discovered himself as an artist creating these books. He wanted my mother’s name on the title page, and she said, ‘No, I’m sure you’re going to do more books by yourself.” And that’s exactly what happened. “Father invented the name Babar, he invented the old lady [who takes Babar in, in the books], who was not part of the original story my mother told,” De Brunhoff said. “He enjoyed himself so much that’s how he started to work on the whole series.”

By the end of 1930, Jean de Brunhoff had fashioned a picture book dummy for the family to enjoy, featuring Babar transforming into a nattily dressed (in his signature green suit and derby hat), automobile-driving gent introduced to the finer things in life by the kind, wealthy old lady before he returns to the great forest and is crowned King. And in 1931, de Brunhoff’s brother-in-law Lucien Vogel, who was publisher of fashion magazine Le jardin des modes, facilitated the official publication of The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant via an arm of publishing company Condé Nast. It was published in the U.S. by Louise Bonino Williams at Smith & Haas (acquired by Random House in 1936) in 1933. That debut was an immediate hit in France and a second volume was soon underway.

Laurent de Brunhoff was already fond of drawing at a young age, and he spent more and more time doing it while he had a front-row seat to his father’s creation of six Babar books in quick succession. “Babar was always there,” he told PW, of his childhood years. “My father started to make the second book, Travels with Babar, the year after The Story of Babar; the year after that, Babar the King. Each year there was another title, another story. Babar was a brother, also a friend to my brother and me.”

In October 1937, 12-year-old Laurent experienced a devastating loss when his father Jean died of tuberculosis at the age of 37. World War II began shortly after that, and Laurent finished high school in Paris. In 1944, he rented a studio in the Montparnasse area of the city and began to study painting with his father’s teacher. “At the same time, I was playing with the idea of Babar, to go on with the story of my brother and friend,” he told PW. His mother Cécile had already turned down several offers from publishers to do the same. “Mother had refused the idea of someone else carrying on the idea,” de Brunhoff said. “But of course with me she was delighted. So, I came up with the idea of Arthur, the cousin, who was close to my age.” The first of de Brunhoff’s own books about the lovable elephant, Babar’s Cousin: That Rascal Arthur, was published in France in 1946 and then by Random House in the U.S. in 1948 to great success.

In 1951, de Brunhoff married Marie-Claude Bloch, who would become a scout in Paris for Putnam. The couple had two children, who served as inspiration for a boy and a girl character introduced in 1957’s Babar and the Professor.

De Brunhoff approached his work as a picture-book creator with reverence, and, also with the desire to put his stamp on things. “At first I found it very hard to get exactly the same elephant design as my father,” he told PW in 1968. “But after a while I got it pretty well, although I can still see the difference.” And even as Laurent’s original tales greatly expanded Babar’s world—taking the pachyderm protagonist to Bird Island, America, and Another Planet—“deep inside there is the same philosophy, the same love, the same understanding of each other,” he said.

By the 1970s Random House had become de Brunhoff’s primary publisher. This era also saw Babar move beyond the printed page to adorn various licensed products and media adaptations including the animated NBC-TV specials The Story of Babar (1968) and Babar Comes to America (1971), narrated by Peter Ustinov and produced by Lee Mendelson/Bill Melendez Productions. De Brunhoff supervised the U.S. television projects and wrote the screenplays.

De Brunhoff moved to the U.S. in 1985 as his first marriage ended, and settled in Middletown, Conn. with Wesleyan professor and writer Phyllis Rose, whom he had met in Paris, and they married in 1990. De Brunhoff and Rose collaborated on numerous Babar texts over the years. In 1987 he broadened Babar’s world yet again with the introduction of the elephant’s daughter, Isabelle, in Babar’s Little Girl (Random House). For much of the 1990s, de Brunhoff stepped away from children’s books and went back to his abstract painting. But the publishing hiatus came to an end when de Brunhoff came upon the idea for a new Babar adventure during a camping trip in Yosemite. That book would become Babar and the Succotash Bird (2000), his first of many projects with Howard Reeves, then founding publisher of the newly launched Abrams Books for Young Readers division.

In all, de Brunhoff wrote and illustrated more than 45 books starring Babar—which have been translated into more than 18 languages and have sold millions of copies around the world—as well as several other titles including a trio of books in the 1960s featuring Serafina the Giraffe. In a 1961 PW interview, de Brunhoff was asked why he thought young readers loved the Babar books so much. “[It may be due to] the compromise they offer between the everyday life of children and the world of fantasy,” he said. Upon the release of Succotash, he reflected on what it was like to take up his father’s mantle. “To be able to understand the world of Babar and to be able to go on with it, for this world to live forever, has been the most pleasurable part,” he told PW. “The challenge of being faithful to my father was not a burden for me. After a few years, Babar was my own. I adore my father’s books. I think he’s a genius. But I’m totally at ease with Babar. The challenge is my desire to be perfect.”

Reeves, now editor at large at Abrams Books for Young Readers and Amulet, who worked with de Brunhoff for nearly 20 years, shared this remembrance: “I first met Laurent when I purchased his new book Succotash Bird as well as his backlist. Working closely with Laurent and later with his wife, we began reissuing two Babar backlist books a season, in a slightly edited format. We produced the backlist books from the original art, treating them with all the love and enthusiasm we always have with any new title. In almost all cases the art still existed and was in Laurent’s possession.

I have missed working with him over the past few years. His last book was Babar’s Guide to Paris, in 2017. A fitting tribute to a man and his friend in the legendary green suit, who first met in the City of Light. They brought joy, humor, and warmth into so many lives, in so many countries, for so many, many years.”

And Jason M. Wells, former publicist and marketing director at Abrams Books for Young Readers, came to call de Brunhoff a good friend over their 16-year professional relationship. “When Laurent brought Babar to Abrams in the early 2000s, he saw himself as a fine artist and a yoga devotee,” he said. “That was reflected in the books he crafted and his marketing activities. Some of the finest museums in the country hosted packed book signings with him, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute in Chicago, and San Francisco MoMA. The French consulate in New York hosted an epic party for Laurent and Babar during a BookExpo. Babar’s new adventures reflected some of Laurent’s passions, which brought him a different kind of professional success that he found very satisfying. It was a magical time to be working with him.”