Are you still poleaxed by the insane election results? Uncertain about when (or how) you’ll regain focus for creative work? Here’s an unlikely tonic for your current woes: Tomi Ungerer: A Treasury in 8 Books (Phaidon), a collection of children’s books by an underappreciated illustrator is filled with whipsmart, often dark, and oddly cheering observations about luck, human nature, and hope.
Born 85 years ago in Alsace, a region squabbled over for centuries by Germany and France, Ungerer’s childhood encounters with the Nazis didn’t threaten his life directly, but they did ignite in him an incandescent rage against injustice that’s still glowing hotly. (The 2012 documentary about his life, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, is a must-watch in these uncertain times.) Forced to speak German instead of French, appalled by rumors of Jewish neighbors shipped to death camps, and even living for three months in a cellar at one point, Ungerer’s anger was tempered by a well developed sense of absurdity and a prodigious talent for illustration and visual storytelling.
After emigrating to New York City in the 1960s, Ungerer became a best-selling children’s book author while simultaneously pursuing more adult illustration projects in erotica and political posters. This wasn’t particularly unusual among his peers; Shel Silverstein wrote song lyrics, theater, and TV scripts for adults, and was a columnist in Playboy for over 40 years, often sharing a masthead with Roald Dahl, who wrote erotic fiction for the magazine. But Ungerer’s adult work was more pungent stuff: his erotica is downright hot and nasty, depicting then-unmentionable practices (BDSM, anal sex, threesomes both gay and straight) with unapologetic delight. Similarly if less controversially, his political posters are superlative. Fueled by a steady outrage channeled into an intensely creative intellect, Ungerer pumped out one biting visual synecdoche after another, skewing the Vietnam War and racial tensions in the ’60s civil rights struggle. He refers to those posters as “fist-style” in the documentary about his life, and it’s entirely fitting.
Perhaps inevitably, Ungerer’s disparate pursuits eventually converged, with personally catastrophic results. Libraries nationwide yanked his children’s books from the shelves and publishers followed suit. While many of his fellow authors empathized, the public opposition to Ungerer was so total (the New York Times even made an official policy of not reviewing any of his books) that resistance was futile. It took decades for the furor to die down. As a result, younger generations remain largely unaware of Ungerer’s contributions to children’s literature.
Unlike many children’s books, Ungerer’s open a wider moral aperture, trusting children to draw their own conclusions. In what’s perhaps his best-known tale, The Three Robbers, a trio of caped rapscallions strip travelers of loot, smash carriage wheels with an axe, and blind horses with pepper spray. Zeralda’s Ogre opens with a cool observation about its hero: “Of all things [to eat], he liked little children for breakfast the best.” Flix tangles with race relations, transmogrified into a world of cats and dogs. Otto follows the peregrinations of a teddy bear who survives the Holocaust. Repellant animals, like Emile the octopus, become both cuddly and heroic as Ungerer reveals their unexpected talents. In Ungerer’s books, children glimpse the fluttering curtain of a moral world usually kept hidden from them. His particular genius is in controlling that flutter: in coaxing the right amount of bad or uncertain feelings into the disinfecting sunlight.
But morality in Ungerer’s tales, as in real life, never triumphs wholly on its own merits. The robbers steal an orphan named Tiffany who asks them how they’ll spend their wealth. Nonplussed by a question they’ve never considered, they continue stealing, but focus on nabbing “lost, unhappy, or abandoned children,” using their amassed treasure to buy a castle to house them all. (One presumes the stealing of loot persists, too. How else could they pay for all those kids’ expensive upkeep?) The child-eating ogre only changes his ways when a gifted cook, a child named Zeralda, shows him how much better other foods can taste. Both are wickedly imperfect resolutions—less complete moral conversions, than pragmatic, potentially reversible choices.
Did I mention Ungerer is witty as hell and strangely kind, too? Emile tells the story of a resourceful, brave octopus with a light-hearted touch, never overwhelmed by its subtext. Differently abled creatures aren’t necessarily worse than cuddlier animal-heroes—just different (and, in Emile’s case, better). I braced myself for reading Otto, concerned that an unpredictable Holocaust tale might rattle my three year old, but Ungerer displays a sure knowledge of his young readers’ limits while not shortchanging the turbulent realities of that period.
Ungerer is not a perfect draftsman, but a highly sensitive one. His illustration moves from strength to strength, with brilliant variety and inventiveness, balancing looseness and control. His books give children fresh ways of seeing, with unusual vantage points. For instance, in The Hat the focal point of every picture makes clear the hat is the story’s hero, its owner a mere accessory. Largely self-taught as an illustrator—Ungerer dropped out of high school and never went back—his style is deceptively cartoonish. Closer examination of his work reveals a meticulousness behind the friendly style, like the research necessary to render a tilbury carriage accurately in The Hat.
He’s genius at witty digressions, showing Emile the octopus bending himself into a chair, a sleigh, a unicorn, or an elephant. Any reader of children’s books knows that children “read” the illustrations independent from the text, so funny bagatelles hidden in the pictures are a must. In Zeralda and the Ogre’s family portrait (the two eventually marry), a passel of happy children rally around their parents, but one child holds a knife and fork behind his back, smacking his lips. Is he planning to snack on his infant sibling?
Later works by Ungerer display similar wit married to an even finer degree of technical control. Fog Island (2013) is sumptuous. Ungerer describes how he drew the pictures in black and white first, colored them in, and then muted entire scenes with a white-pastel overlay. The effect is both precise and ghostly. That book also displays Ungerer’s sure sense of layout; unnecessary details are pared away in favor of a polished, dreamlike scene. Otto, published in English in 2010, tells its story in a faux-naif illustrated style, which softens the more violent scenes, but also renders them more poignant. It also nicely underscores the book’s premise: that we’re reading a story penned and drawn by Otto himself.
Published to celebrate Ungerer’s 85th birthday this month, Phaidon’s edition is handsome and well-executed in nearly every detail. Generously sized, the story’s diverse visual styles are unified under an über-style keyed off Ungerer’s cursive handwriting. The eight collected tales are followed by an appendix of author Q&As with original sketches, each elucidating points about the story’s genesis. My one gripe with the volume is purely logistical: the book is heavy enough that my toddler squirms uncomfortably when it rests on his lap (a nearby armrest solves this).
Good children’s books entertain, instruct, and occasionally dazzle with their good looks. Great children’s books urge kids to think more deeply, test their own intelligence and rely on it, and help them get comfortable with conflicting ideas and the multivalent nature of truth. By these definitions, Ungerer’s books are both good and great. This volume makes both a worthy, and timely, addition to your kid’s bookshelf.