The prodigal subversive returns

Tomi Ungerer, controversial '60s creator of classic children's literature, is back in print

Brian Bethune August 25 2008

The prodigal subversive returns

Tomi Ungerer, controversial '60s creator of classic children's literature, is back in print

Brian Bethune August 25 2008

The prodigal subversive returns


Tomi Ungerer, controversial '60s creator of classic children's literature, is back in print


Anyone inclined to think that those who create books for young children, or did so back in the dim, schoolmarmish past, were necessarily meek, mild and highly proper, should consider the life and works of Tomi Ungerer. A combative pacifist, vicious satirist, angry anti-Vietnam War polemicist, gifted creator of erotica, Nova Scotia pig farmer and crude practical joker, he’s also the recipient of the 1998 Hans Christian Andersen prize for illustration—the kidlit world’s equivalent of a Nobel. Leaf through his books from the ’50s and ’60s, and what leaps out is a recognizable graphic style, a look reminiscent of far better known—and later—illustrators, from the animators of Sesame Street to Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein. Tomi Ungerer, in fact, is exactly what his new publisher likes to claim:

“the most famous children’s book author you’ve never heard of.”

Now Ungerer, 76, is back, with Phaidon Press having acquired the rights to all his children’s works and republishing 1961’s The Three Robbers, the first in its series, in September. Back in English that is, because the trilingual (French, German, English) Ungerer never went away in more than 20 languages worldwide—even “in Laotian,” he says over the phone from his home in Ireland. “It’s just in America I’ve been banned.” Why one of the most honoured and influential children’s illustrators ever, who created most of the 20 works Phaidon plans to reissue in English in New York, should have been so forgotten in North America, is a tale about a moment in time and one prickly personality.

Ungerer, a native of Strasbourg in France, arrived in New York at 24 in 1956, with only

$60 and a suitcase frill of drawings, and found a golden age for illustrators. He had constant work at Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Sports Illustrated and elsewhere, executing satirical caricatures of society people and exquisite drawings of thoroughbreds racing on impossibly thin legs. He’d design kites or print ads or create movie posters, like his image for Dr.

Strangelove (1964)—a general pushing a button on his uniform that explodes his own head in a mushroom cloud. “It was a good time to be there,” he fondly recalls. “Magazines were always ready to send me to events rather than a photographer.”

And, from the very start, he produced children’s books, dozens of them, “for the child in me,” he says. They were oddball creations in a U.S. genre dominated by a gentle realism, with factual if bloodless animal stories. Ungerer’s critically acclaimed TheMellops Go Flying ( 1957), on the


other hand, was the first in a series chronicling a daring family of French pigs, who went on to drill for oil and dive for treasure. What’s more, The Three Robbers protagonists disturbed some librarians by their use of a pepper pot, giant axe and blunderbuss to plunder stagecoach passengers—without any noticeable disapproval from the author.

Ungerer was a hit. Nobody quite like him had been seen before in U.S. kidlit, according to critic Leonard Marcus, author of Minders of Make-Believe, a history of U.S. children’s publishing. There was the pure talent, the loose suppleness of his line, Marcus notes,

but above all, “there was so much mischief in his work.” Ungerer is dismissive of the kids’ books he found on arrival: “All little animals, all kiss-from-mother, all squishy stuff—I hated being kissed by my mother.” So the writer set out, Marcus says, to tweak the critics: Ungerer would hide a drop of blood in a picture or draw a hand with six fingers or a human foot dangling from a hobo’s knapsack, images he hoped his ideal reader—a child wise and tolerant, ready to take the world as it is—would notice, and his imagined critics—pursed-lipped librarians—would not.

The art came out of Ungerer’s idiosyncratic view of the nature of children, at once romantic—“children were the wise ones,” in Marcus’s words, “adults the ones who had forgotten everything important”—and unsentimental. “Most kids’ books treat kids as idiots,” Ungerer says. “They don’t take them seriously. Children like big words, new words: I write ‘blunderbuss,’ not ‘gun.’ Kids already know where babies come from; what they don’t know is where adults come from.” The idealized concept of childhood was a reaction to his own unhappy one. Born in Alsace in 1931, in the Rhine borderland that changed hands so often between France and Germany, Ungerer was three when his father died. His mother, to his distress, sent him to live with a distant uncle, a religious fanatic who believed depictions of the human form were anathema, and destroyed anything Tomi drew. Small wonder he was resistant to mama’s kisses.

Then came the war, and the Nazi occupation. Declaring Alsace to be recovered German territory, the Nazis incorporated it directly into the Third Reich. Ungerer, packed home to his mother, learned the public use of French was forbidden. He had three months to learn German if he wanted to

return to school, which the linguistically gifted nine-year-old promptly did. By 1944, drafted into digging Wehrmacht trenches, Ungerer thought the worst had come, but when the French returned after VE Day, forbidding in their turn the use of German, he found his so-called liberators as arrogant as the conquerors. The experience left him a lifelong pacifist. Ungerer has always considered himself Alsatian first, European second and French well after, a belief that lies behind the conclusion in his first postwar French report card: “This boy is perverse and subversive.” He soon left Alsace to knock about Europe, as far as Lapland, he says, before crossing the Atlantic.

Manhattan was a dream come true, “a real love affair,” Ungerer says: plenty of work, plenty of money, plenty of influence. Not only did he inspire others with his graceful style and grown-up themes, Ungerer in fact introduced his friend Shel Silverstein to his own editor, the legendary Ursula Nordstrom. (Silverstein, who had made his mark drawing for Playboy, would otherwise have had a hard time breaking into the kids’ genre, as Marcus dryly notes.) Ungerer was sometimes the guest of honour at the National Cartoonists Society, where he once told the assembled members a story that showed where his pacifism ended. “An art director had called to ask if Tomi was sending his work around with another guy,” says noted cartoonist Randall Enos. “Tomi said he wasn’t, so someone else was showing stuff identical to Tomi’s. Ungerer immediately put the wheels in motion to find out who. The offender’s name was secured and Tomi called him and told him that if he didn’t stop copying him... he would kill him. He had no more problems with that guy.”

The same pugnacity was on display with his practical jokes, which were so notorious some people hesitated to take up invitations to parties at his home in the Hamptons. “I loathe bourgeois society,” he says grandly, “so I would have beachfront parties where I’d throw cans of gas into the fires, and yell

‘run, run,’ or serve flat stones in hamburger buns—you know, shake them up.”

But even as Ungerer was flying high— among his many enjoyable projects was spending weeks at a time in Montreal working on decorative flourishes in the Canadian pavilion at Expo 67—he was testing the limits of his new home’s tolerance. He has always believed, true child of the ’60s that he is, that sex free of moralistic hang-ups is the real cure for mankind’s woes. Ungerer has crafted as many books of erotica—“I do not say, pornography,” he adds severely-as kids’ tales, from 1969’s Fornicon (satirical drawings of soulless sex) to Guardian Angels of Hell 40 years later, his tribute to some friendly dominatrices at a Hamburg brothel.

At the same time rumours of Ungerer’s supposed Communism—never true, he says— began, fuelled by his fist-in-your-face antiVietnam War posters. (Subtlety was never a hallmark of his political art: a 1967 poster shows a Statue of Liberty being shoved down an Asian man’s throat.) The combination was toxic: American children’s books publishers might have coped with an author of either suspect politics or outré sexuality, but a commie pornographer was too much. What had been a straw in the wind with The Three Robbers, that nagging feeling in the establishment that Ungerer was a little too edgy, became a full-blown storm.

By 1971, in full flight from the U.S., Ungerer was ensconced on a pig farm near Lockport, N.S. Four years later, he and his wife, Yvonne, moved to Ireland to raise a family. His obscurity was rapid on this side of the ocean, but in Europe Ungerer went from strength to strength: his books never out of print, and the first living artist in France to have his own state museum—the Musée Tomi Ungerer, in Strasbourg, housing 8,000 of his drawings and 6,000 kids’ toys he’s collected.

It’s good to live long enough to see the wheel turn, Ungerer agrees, although he feels too frail to personally return and bask in the attention. But he takes his resurrection in

stride, as a demonstration of the truth of one of his guiding aphorisms, the one that best distills the hard-won wisdom of a hard-luck childhood: “Don’t hope, cope.” M