The French Kid’s Lit Author Who Inspired Maurice Sendak & Shel Silverstein

Tomi Ungerer fills his stories with the usual ogres, orphans, and robbers of fairy tales, but his humanity always breaks through.

Effective terror, like effective lies, relies on the commingling of the known and unknown. For children, who scramble to build a structurally sound edifice of interpretative knowledge with an ever-changing stack of facts, virtually everything falls into these shadowlands.
Authors of children’s tales from Grimm and Perrault on are well aware of this. Within the canon of children’s book classics, one sees terror’s bulky form just under the stories’ surfaces like a mysterious lump under the covers. In Maurice Sendak’s universe, wild things, besotted, turn captors. Max, their king, becomes their prisoner. Roald Dahl’s “witching hour” has kept more children from falling into slumber than any amount of candy and cartoons. In one of William Steig’s most famous books, a small mouse named Amos, stranded in the middle of the ocean, awaits death. Shel Silverstein’s meditation on Where the Sidewalk Ends would give even Sartre the shivers.

Nightly observation of my own children and my own recollections when I was one tell me that the power of these books is in the resonance between the uncertain and diffusely scary world of the child and the uncertain, diffusely scary world of these stories. Small and effectively powerless against the whims of adults, contested bedtimes notwithstanding, children are buffeted by the currents of a large world they often do not understand. A book without fear is an unbelievable book, sounding a dull note that soon fades.

Among the greatest interpreters of inchoate terror is Tomi Ungerer, the 85-year-old Alsatian illustrator, author, and artist whose work has just been collected and released in fine coffee table form by Phaidon. (Disclosure: Last year Phaidon also published my own children’s book, Can I Eat That?) Though idolized by Sendak and Silverstein, whom he helped get published, Ungerer is likely unknown to most of us. That’s been changing in the last eight years, since Phaidon acquired the English-language rights to his books in 2008, a documentary came out called Far Out Isn’t Far Enough in 2011, and last year New York Drawing Center mounted a well-received exhibition of his work. Nevertheless, no amount of renaissance or belated renown seems like appropriate recompense for a man like Ungerer.
The stories that led to Ungerer’s exile have been so well recounted that they resemble a fairy tale. I first heard about them while shopping at my local children’s bookstore, Bank Street Books. Espying Ungerer’s Adelaide—about the Parisian adventures of a winged kangaroo—under my arm, the perpetually disheveled owner raised his eyebrow conspiratorially. “Do you know about Tomi?” he asked. I answered I didn’t. Thus was related the tale of how Ungerer had fallen from the all-important esteem of librarians at the very height of his productivity in 1970 after publishing a book of erotic drawings called Fornicon. Apparently when confronted by the outraged horde of censorious arbiters of children’s literature at an American Library Association conference, Ungerer answered, “If people didn’t fuck, you wouldn’t have any children, and without children you would be out of work!” That didn’t go over well and shortly afterwards Ungerer fled to Europe and there he stayed for much of the last half-century. (Later I obtained a rare copy of Fornicon. It is pretty outré but also brilliant.)

Of the eight books included in Tomi Ungerer: A Treasury of 8 Books, four are available in English for the first time. [Ungerer writes in English, French and German.] For a fan like me and parents of fans, this a boon since well-loved children’s books tend to get read with the constancy of catechism.

But more than novelty, what the bound volume offers is juxtaposition and juxtaposition yields analytical insight. A brief survey of his protagonists, for instance, yields Ungerer’s approach to heroism. In the Three Robbers, one of his best-known books, the heroes are three blunderbuss-carrying pepper-blowing axe-wielding robbers. In Zeralda’s Ogre, the titular ogre is a bearded, teeth-gnashing, child-eating ogre. In Emile, it’s an octopus on land who ultimately retreats to the sea. The titular Moon Man is a soft-skinned silver creature whose visitation on Earth is short and ill-fated. Fog Island is inhabited by a lonely man deep in a mountain whose very existence is up for debate. Flix is about a pair of cats who birth a pug who births a cat. Otto, by far the most harrowing of his stories, is told through the damaged eyes of a teddy bear that’s been through hell. The hero, such as there is one, of The Hat isn’t a person at all but a transient, well-intentioned hat.

Though the treasury contains fascinating interviews with Ungerer by Phaidon editor Maya Gartner, as well as sketches and various associated material culled from the Musée Tomi Ungerer in Strasbourg, what the collation of tales makes clear is that Ungerer left it all on the page. One doesn’t need to hear from him directly for from these stories alone emerge a world view of apprehension and anomie. The Holocaust is the underpainting not just for Sendak but for Ungerer, too. The world and its buildings and uniforms—with which Ungerer admits he is obsessed—are fundamentally untrustworthy. The Moon Man stands for Ungerer when he says, “The Moon Man, who had realized he could never live peacefully on this planet, agreed to go.”

And yet, it’s not all—not nearly all—doom and gloom. Through Zeralda’s culinary ministrations, the ogre learns to prefer veal cutlets on a bed of truffled aspic to human flesh. After stealing an orphan named Tiffany, the three robbers spend their ill-gotten riches establishing a center for the abandoned, unwanted and orphaned children in the world. Ungerer insists on the vast and luminous possibility of goodness in even the most despicable creature. Ungerer doesn’t ignore fear, but even when things get dark, he leaves the night light on.