For many decades, Tomi Ungerer’s 140-plus books, posters, sculptures, and films have inspired creativity and imagination in children and adults worldwide. Now, in commemoration of his 85th birthday, friends and fans can show their appreciation for the artist whom Maurice Sendak described as a “spectacular graphic genius.” Phaidon Press is creating a virtual birthday tribute of his admirers’ drawings and written messages, some of which are revealed here. The press is also celebrating the author’s bountiful contribution to children’s literature—for which he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1998—with the publication of Tomi Ungerer: A Treasury of 8 Books, a slipcase volume that also includes more than 50 previously unpublished sketches, storyboards, and photographs.
Ungerer, who writes stories in English, French, and German, was born in 1931 in Strasbourg, France, which became part of Germany after the Nazis took over the city during World War II. Deeply affected by his boyhood wartime experiences, the author has long created stories and art that reflect his abhorrence of injustice, violence, and discrimination. Yet, Ungerer writes in a letter that opens his treasury, creating children’s books also enables him “to return to my childhood. I create them for the child that lives inside me. Thanks to this child and his innocence, everything remains fresh and new, and I can be carried away freely into my childhood fantasies.”
Both of these creative impulses are manifest in the Treasury, which compiles three of Ungerer’s classic picture books (The Three Robbers, Moon Man, and Otto); four works long unavailable in English (Zeralda’s Ogre, Flix, The Hat, and Emile); and Fog Island, a PW Best Children’s Book of 2013.
“After looking at Tomi’s backlist with a fresh eye, we decided to take the opportunity to make a timeless, larger tribute to his work,” said Cecily Kaiser, Phaidon publishing director, children’s books, about the genesis of the treasury. “Tomi has such a loyal following, far and wide, and we wanted to bring his work together in the most deserving way. For all his art and design genius, he is so humble and so appreciative of the efforts others put in on his behalf. It was such a joy to see how pleased he was when he first saw a finished copy of the treasury.”
The virtual 85th birthday tribute to Ungerer also sprang from Phaidon staffers’ brainstorming sessions. “Because Tomi is so special and has influenced so many, we decided that inviting fans to help us celebrate him creatively online would be a great way for them to share their gratitude,” said Meagan Bennett, art director for children’s books. It’s an opportunity to let all the love for him to shine in one place. And the response has been overwhelming.”
Those who are interested in viewing the birthday wishes Ungerer has received—or who would like to add their own—can do so online. On the author’s actual birthday, November 28, Phaidon will present him with printed versions of the tributes (though well-wishers can still post greetings on the site after that date).
As his landmark birthday draws near, the ever energetic Ungerer is looking ahead to his next book project. “There is still one book I want to do—and I am going to do it,” he stated. “It is a book about thirst and hunger in the third world. I already have the elements of the story, but I haven’t yet found the key element to tie it all together.”
Meanwhile, the author’s thoughts are on his upcoming milestone, and on his first-ever treasury. “At 85, I have reached the right speed without a driver’s license,” he said. “If I had to, I’d start my whole life all over again just to learn more from my mistakes. My life has been an extended childhood—in keeping my innocence as reckless as it could be. And this treasury is here to prove it!”
Tomi Ungerer: A Treasury of 8 Books by Tomi Ungerer. Phaidon, $49.95 Oct. ISBN 978-0-7148-7285-8