Tomi Ungerer’s name is instantly recognizable to those who grew up reading his books in the 1960s and ’70s: The Three Robbers, Crictor the Boa Constrictor, Moon Man, among others, were perennial bestsellers. But Ungerer’s catalog was allowed to go out of print when his outspoken political views and ribald erotic drawings alarmed U.S. publishers, though his books continued to sell widely in Europe. Now U.K.-based art publisher Phaidon has begun reprinting Ungerer’s children’s titles. Meanwhile, at 80, Ungerer has achieved elder statesman status in Europe. Winner of the coveted Hans Christian Andersen award in 1998, he is also the only living illustrator to have had a museum dedicated to his work; the Tomi Ungerer Museum in Strasbourg, France, opened in 2007. In celebration of his 80th birthday, Ungerer was invited to visit the U.S., where the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., has mounted a retrospective exhibition of his work, and where, in New York City, he will appear in conversation with Jules Feiffer at the Society of Illustrators. Ungerer spoke with Bookshelf by phone.
Welcome back to the United States! It's been a long time—over 10 years—since you've been here, right?
Oh, it’s a pilgrimage! I’ve so much wanted to see New York again. It’s more difficult for me to travel nowadays, you know, but the needle cannot avoid the magnet, this huge magnet that is New York City. I love it here. It’s wonderful to be back. New York is just like a big battery, you know, it gives you such energy. There are so many languages being spoken here that if people don’t understand each other they smile at each other instead—the smile does the work of a whole dictionary!
And I’m very much looking forward to seeing Jules [Feiffer]. He’s an old friend of mine. We’ve known each other for a long time—and I’m at the stage where I have to write little crosses next to some of the names in my address book, so I’m very happy that he’s still here.
And I’m delighted as well to be talking to Publishers Weekly. This is the magazine that published the very first article about my first book (The Mellops Go Flying, edited by Ursula Nordstrom); it was the first thing ever written about me and my work.
Thank you! Phaidon has been reissuing your picture books, which have long been out of print. How did that come about?
Well, Phaidon didn’t approach me. They went to my main publisher Diogenes [Verlag, in Zurich, Switzerland]. I’ve had a long, long relationship with Diogenes—they’ve published all my work all along. I have been published in 30 languages, but my English-language work was out of print. In fact, it had gotten to the point where my Korean publisher was talking about publishing me in English. That would have been an interesting experience!
Diogenes agreed to Phaidon’s proposal, and then you had to look again at all of your artwork.
Yes, I had to look at my books again. I don’t know why I feel this way, but I’m never satisfied with the artwork. I desperately draw and draw and I want it to be perfect. I sometimes do 30 sketches—I never use an eraser, I just make another drawing—and yet even after all that it’s never perfect. I don’t feel that way about writing; I’m very pleased sometimes with the writing. But when the last chapter is finished I’m too self-conscious; I don’t want to look at it anymore. I am much less insecure than I used to be, though. It’s taken me 60 years to polish my act. Now instead of writer’s block I have only chips on my shoulders.
So you do the artwork first?
No, no; when I do a children’s book I always write the story first. And for some reason, although I write in three languages [French, German, and English], I always write children’s books in English. It’s because for every one word in French there are 10 words in English; there are so many synonyms, so many shades of meaning. I like to call things what they are. I never say “a tree”; I say “a willow.” I never say “a carriage”; I say “a tilbury.” Adults always talk to children like [little squeaky voice] “yipity yipity yipity.” We have to take children seriously.
Anyway, so a children’s book is always 32 pages, and I always have my little [storyboard] squares. I always say that my story is a salami and I just have to find out where to slice it to put in the pictures.
You've embraced new media—you have a Twitter feed, and a Facebook page. Have you experimented with graphic tablets and Photoshop and all the other digital tools that are available to illustrators now?
No. I have to use my hands! I make my own furniture. I used to have a forge, and an anvil. I haven’t been able to acclimate myself to all the modern electronics. And with all those modern gimmicks we’re working in a vacuum. You know, after five or 10 years there’s not going to be any way to read those files anymore, like the way you can’t use tape recorders anymore. It’s really ephemeral. I need my solid values here: paper, pen, tools, elements. The most important things I own are books. I love them: I love the page, even the smell of the book, the sensuousness of them.
You’ve done as much work for adults as you have for children. You were awarded the Franco-German journalism prize in 2008—was that for work on editorial cartoons?
Oh, that and more. For articles and speeches and in posters, for organizing events between France and Germany, and the work I’ve done for Franco-German friendship. I’m sort of at the ambassador level. You know I grew up in Alsace, on the border between France and Germany, and that when I was still a boy the Nazis came; Colmar [the biggest town in the area where he lived] was where one of the last battles of the war was fought. My book Otto [Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear, the story of a teddy bear lost amidst the violence of WWII, published here by Phaidon] is taught in French schools. I fought for the teaching of the Shoah in schools. That stuff cannot be forgotten. I can be awfully brutal and hard; I made a poster for classrooms of a big swastika with a hand that comes down and grabs little children. I really think children’s book artists should think more about reality, and about how to make children conscious that there are bad things in the world and that we have to fight against them.
I’ve worked to convince the Germans to teach French as a foreign language in their schools. I had convinced the French education minister to teach German, too—but then they had an election and the minister changed. I’ve always been politically engaged; when I was in the U.S. I protested segregation and the Vietnam war. Every artist should have some causes to fight for—or fight against.
When I hear you talk and when I think about how you create some work that is suitable for children and other work that challenges even adults, I’m reminded a bit of the writer Shel Silverstein.
Oh, yes! He was a good friend of mine. I was the one who introduced him to Ursula Nordstrom [Ungerer’s editor at Harper & Row in the 1960s]! He was writing wonderful songs for children. I said, “Let’s go see Ursula!” She fell in love with him. That’s how he got started writing children’s books.
How did you meet him?
I think it was Billy Cole [editor of Ungerer’s work for adults] who introduced us. We were all against the war, and in those days a friend of a friend was your friend, too. It is great to have you mention his name.
What’s next for you?
Oh, I have about 12 books going; it’s madness. I’m working on big collages; I have some sculptures going. And I’ve just finished a children’s book for Phaidon called Fog Man, set in Ireland.
You have a house in the southwest of Ireland, isn't that right?
The extreme southwest—in fact, it is the nearest point in all of Europe to North America. We went with six suitcases when my wife Yvonne was eight months pregnant. People were placing bets that we wouldn’t last a year. We’ve been there for 40 years. I can’t be away from the sea! I need my horizon line. And, after the canyons of Colorado, the storms that batter the cliffs where we live are the most magnificent works of nature I have ever seen.
We’re close to reality every day there. If you have the woods, you don’t need a museum. Old age is an age of discovery if you still have your mind. If you have all your marbles, you know. [Laughing] If you have all your marbles, you can shoot them with greater accuracy!
This Saturday, June 11, at 12:30p.m., Ungerer will give a free drawing demonstration at the Phaidon store in New York City at 83 Wooster St.