I’ve been meaning to do a post on this fantastic artist and children’s book author for a while. We had several of his books around the house growing up, but one in particular, The Three Robbers (pictured below), was my favorite. It tells the story of three robbers who roam the countryside armed with a blunderbuss, a pepper blower, and a huge red axe, stealing from everyone they encounter. One day they come across an orphan who they take into their robber’s den, exhibiting surprising kindness. When she sees their vast horde of plundered treasure and asks, “What is all this for?” the robbers have no answer. At the end of the story, they use their fortune to buy a castle and take in all the “lost, unhappy and abandoned children,” who wear tiny red hats and capes à la the three robbers. I always loved this book not so much for the story (which was delightful) but for the dark and mesmerizing illustrations. There was something creepy but also deeply satisfying about the simple shapes of the robbers’ hats and the bright colors of the red axe and the gold treasure against the black background of the page.
Ungerer is the author of over 140 books, both for children and adults. Some of Ungerer’s best known titles for children are Flat Stanley, about a little boy who gets flattened by a falling bulletin board and is able to have all sorts of adventures thanks to his one-dimensional status, and Crictor, about an old lady whose best friend is a boa constrictor.
Tomi Ungerer was born in Stasbourg, France in 1931 and grew up under the shadow of Nazi Germany. It’s no surprise then that his art often has dark themes (he has a book called Otto about a teddy bear who gets left behind when his little boy is taken away by the Nazis), and in the tradition of other controversial children’s authors (like Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak), his books were often banned because of his work doing both erotic drawings and antiwar posters that protested the Vietnam war. Maurice Sendak was a huge fan of his work, and he is the subject of a new documentary out this year, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story. I’m dying to see it, but until I find a means to watch it I will have to satisfy myself reading up on this brilliant author and getting my hands on more of his books. For some more information about Ungerer’s life and work, check out articles here and here, or better yet, go read one of his visually stunning and moving books.